IN THOSE DAYS
THE STORY OF AN OLD MAN
TRANSLATED FROM THE HEBREW BY
IN THOSE DAYS
THE STORY OF AN OLD MAN
When the time drew near for Samuel the Beadle to let his son begin his term of military service, he betook himself to the market, purchased a regulation shirt, a knapsack, and a few other things needed by a soldier—and he did not forget the main item: he ran and fetched a bottle of liquor. Then he went home.
And there, in the presence of his neighbors, of whom I had the privilege of being one, he drank a glassful to "long life," and offered another to Rebekah, his good wife.
"Drink, madam," said he, merrily. At this Rebekah turned up her nose, as if ready to blurt out with "How often have you seen me drink liquor?"
Indeed, it was an affront which she would not have passed over in silence at any other time, but she had no heart for an open quarrel just then, when about to part with her son, and was satisfied with a silent refusal.
"Woman," said Samuel, angrily, "take it, and do as you are told!" But Rebekah was not impressed by his angry tone, for in fact Samuel was an easy "lord and master." As to his loudness, it was but part of an old habit of his, dating from the days of his own military service, to bully his inferiors and to let those above him in authority bully him.
"So are they all of his kind," she would often explain to her neighbors. "They just fuss, to blow off their tempers, and then—one may sit on them."
Rebekah persisted in her refusal, and Samuel began in a softer tone:
"But why does it worry you so much? Woman, woman, it is not to Shemad, God forbid, that he is going!"
At the mention of conversion, Rebekah burst into tears, for Samuel had unintentionally touched her sore spot: there were rumors in the town that her family was not without blemish.
"Now that you are crying," exclaimed Samuel, thoroughly angry, "you are not only hard-headed, but also silly, simply silly! 'Long of hair but short of sense.' To cry and cry, and not know wherefore!" With this Samuel turned towards us, and began to plead his case.
"Have you ever seen such a cry-baby? Five times in her life she filled the world with a hue and cry, when she bore me a child, and every time it was but an empty bubble: five girls she brought me! Then, beginning with the sixth birth, she was fortunate enough to get boys, the real thing. Three sons she gave me as my old age was approaching. And now, when she ought to thank Heaven for having been found worthy of raising a soldier for the army, she cries! Think of it—your son enters the army a free man; but I, in my time,—well, well, I was taken by force when a mere youngster!"
Here the old man settled his account with the bottle, and took leave of his crying wife and his good neighbors, and in the company of his son mounted the coach waiting outside, ready to go to H., the capital of the district, where the recruits had to report.
By special good fortune I was going to H. by the same coach, and so I came to hear the story of old Samuel's life from the beginning till that day.
It was the rainy season; the roads were muddy, and the horses moved with difficulty. The driver made frequent stops, and whenever the road showed the slightest inclination to go uphill he would intimate that it might be well for us to dismount and walk beside the coach a little.
The cold drizzle penetrated to our very skin and made our flesh creep. The warmth we had brought with us from the house was evaporating, and with it went the merry humor of the old man. He began to contemplate his son, who sat opposite to him, looking him over up and down.
The wise "lord and master," who had tried to instruct his wife at home and celebrate the fact of her having reared a soldier for the army, he failed himself to stand the trial: he began to feel the pangs of longing and lonesomeness. The imminent parting with his son, to take place on the morrow, seemed to depress him greatly.
Bent and silent he sat, and one could see that he was lost in a maze of thoughts and emotions, which came crowding in upon him in spite of himself.
I took a seat opposite to him, so that I might enter into a conversation with him.
"Do you remember all that happened to you in those days?" I asked by way of starting the conversation.
He seemed to welcome my question. In that hour of trial the old man was eager to unload his bosom, to share his thoughts with some one, and return mentally to all the landmarks of his own life, till he reached the period corresponding to that into which he was introducing his son. The old man took out his well-beloved short pipe. According to his story it had been a present from his superior officer, and it had served him ever since. He filled the pipe, struck a match, and was enveloped in smoke.
You ask me whether I remember everything—he began from behind the smoke. Why, I see it all as if it had happened yesterday. I do not know exactly how old I was then. I remember only that my brother Solomon became a Bar-Mitzwah at that time. Then there was Dovidl, another brother, younger than Solomon, but older than myself; but he had died before that time. I must have been about eleven years old.
Just then the mothers fell a-worrying: a Catcher was coming to town. According to some he had already arrived.
At the Heder the boys were telling one another that the Catcher was a monster, who caught boys, made soldiers out of them, and turned them over to the Government, in place of the Jewish grown-ups that were unwilling and unable to serve. And the boys were divided in their opinions: some said that the Catcher was a demon, one of those who had been created at twilight on the eve of the Sabbath. Others said that he was simply a "heathen," and some others, that he was an "apostate." Then, there were some who asserted that he was merely a bad Jew, though a learned one nevertheless;—that he wore the regular Jewish costume, the long coat and the broad waistband, and had the Tallis-Koton on his breast, so that the curse of the righteous could not hurt him. According to rumor, he was in the habit of distributing nuts and candy among Jewish boys; and if any one tasted of them, he could not move from the spot, until the Catcher put his hand on him and "caught" him. I happened to overhear a conversation between father and mother, and I gathered from it that I need not fear the Catcher.
It was a Saturday night, soon after the death of my elder brother Dovidl, within the period of the thirty days' mourning for him. Mother would not be consoled, for Dovidl had been her "very best."
Three brothers had I. The first-born, Simhah, may he rest in peace, had been married long before; he was the junior Shohet in town, and a candidate for the Rabbinate. Solomon was more learned in the Torah, young though he was, peace be unto him. . . . Well, they are now in the world-of-truth, in the world-to-come, both of them. But Dovidl, had he lived, would have excelled them both. That is the way of the Angel of Death, he chooses the very best. As to myself—why deny it?—I was a dullard. Somehow my soul was not attuned to the Torah.
As I said, mother was uttering complaints against Heaven, always crying. Yes, in the matter of tears they are experts. I have pondered over it, and have found it out: fish were created out of the mud-puddle, and woman out of tears. Father used to scold her mightily, but she did not mind it; and she never ceased bemoaning Dovidl and crying unto Heaven, "who gave the Angel of Death power over him."
On the night after Sabbath, when father had extinguished the taper in the dregs of the Havdolah cup, he turned to mother, and said: "Now man born of woman is unwise all his life long. He knows not how to thank for the sorrows that have been sweetened by His mercy, blessed be He!"
Mother did not understand, and looked at father questioningly. "The Catcher is in town," explained father.
"The Catcher!" shuddered mother.
"But he takes only Fourths and upwards," said father, reassuringly.
Fourths, Fifths, etc., those households were called which had four, or five, or more sons.
"And our household has only three sons at present," continued father. "Do you understand, woman? Three sons were left to us, and our household is exempt from military duty. Now do you see the mercy of the Lord, blessed be He? Do you still murmur against Him, blessed be He?"—
So it was in those days. Every Jewish community had to deliver a certain fixed number of recruits to the Government annually. This number was apportioned among the families, and every family taxed the households composing it. But not every household had to supply a recruit. A household with a large number of sons secured the exemption of a household with fewer sons. For instance, a household with four sons in it was exempted, if there was a household with five sons to levy from in the same family. And a household of three sons was spared when there was, in the same family, a household of four sons. And so forth.—
And as father was speaking—the old man continued—mother contemplated us, as one that escapes from a fire contemplates the saved remnants; and her eyes overflowed with silent tears. Those were the last tears shed over the grave of Dovidl, and for those tears father had no rebuke. We felt that Dovidl was a saint: he had departed this life to save us from the hand of the Catcher. It seemed to me that the soul of Dovidl was flitting about the room, listening to everything, and noticing that we were pleased that he had died; and I felt ashamed.
The next day I went to the Heder, somewhat proud of myself. I boasted before my mates that I was a Third. The Fourths envied me; the Fifths envied the Fourths, and all of us envied the Seconds and the only sons. So little chaps, youngsters who knew not what their life was going to be, came to know early that brothers, sons of one father, may at times be a source of trouble to one another.
That was at the beginning of the summer.
The teachers decided that we remain within the walls of the Heder most of the time, and show ourselves outside as little as possible during the period of danger. But a decree like that was more than boys could stand, especially in those beautiful summer days.
Meanwhile the Catcher came to town, and set his eye on the son-in-law of the rich Reb Yossel, peace be unto him. The name of the young man was Avremel Hourvitz—a fine, genteel young man. He had run away from his home in Poland and come to our town, and was spending his time at the Klaus studying the Torah. And Reb Yossel, may he rest in peace, had to spend a pile of money before he got Avremel for his daughter. From the same Polish town came the Catcher, to take Avremel as the recruit of the family Hourvitz due to the Jewish community of his city. When he laid his hand on Avremel, the town was shocked. The rabbi himself sent for the Catcher, and promised to let him have, without any contention, some one else instead of Avremel. Then they began to look for a household with the family name of Hourvitz, and they found my father's. Before that happened I had never suspected that my father had anything like a family name. For some time the deal remained a deep secret. But no secret is proof against a mother's intuition, and my mother scented the thing. She caught me by the arm—I do not know why she picked me out—rushed with me to the rabbi, and made it hot for him.
"Is this justice, rabbi? Did I bear and rear children, only to give up my son for the sake of some Avremel?!"
The rabbi sighed, cast down his eyes, and argued, that said Avremel was not simply "an Avremel," but a "veritable jewel," a profound Lamdan, a noble-hearted man, destined to become great in Israel. It was unjust to give him away, when there was someone else to take his place. Besides, Avremel was a married man, and the father of an infant child. "Now where is justice?" demanded the rabbi. But my mother persisted. For all she knew, her own sons might yet grow up to become ornaments to israel . . . And she, too, was observing the ordinances of the Hallah and the Sabbath candles, and the rest of the laws, no less than Avremel's mother.
More arguments, more tears without arguments—till the rabbi softened: he could not resist a woman. Then mother took me and Solomon up to the garret, and ordered us not to venture outside.—
Here the old man interrupted himself by a soft sigh, and continued:—
To a great extent it was my own fault, wild boy that I was. I broke my mother's injunction. In the alley, near the house of my parents, there lived a wine-dealer, Bendet by name. Good wine was to be found in his cellar. For this reason army officers and other persons of rank frequented his place, and he was somewhat of a favorite with them. In short, though he lived in a mean little alley, those important personages were not averse to calling at his house. That Bendet had an only child, a daughter. She was considered beautiful and educated. I had not known her. In my day they spoke ill of her. Naturally, her father loved her. Is there a father who loves not his offspring? And how much more such a daughter, whom everyone loved. However that may be, one day Bendet's daughter broke away, left her father's house, and renounced her faith—may we be spared such a fate! And many years after her father's death she returned to our town, to take possession of her portion of the inheritance. That happened at a time when we were hiding in the garret. The town was all agog: people ran from every street to get a look at the renegade, who came to take possession of a Jewish inheritance. I, too, was seized with a wild desire to get a look at her, to curse her, to spit in her face . . . . And I forgot all the dangers that surrounded me.
Young as I was, I considered myself as a Jew responsible for the wayward one. I lost control of myself, and ran out. But after I had been in the street for some time, I was seized with fear of the Catcher. Every stranger I met seemed to me to be a Catcher. I shrank into myself, walked unsteadily hither and thither, and did not know how to hide myself. Then a man met me. His large beard and curled side-locks made me think he was a good man. I looked at him imploringly. "What ails you, my boy?" he asked in a soft tone. "I am afraid of the Catcher," said I, tearfully.
"Whose son are you?"
I told him.
"Then come with me, and I shall hide you, my boy. Don't be afraid. I am your uncle. Don't you recognize me?"
He took me by the arm, and I went after him. Then I noticed that the children of my neighborhood were eyeing me terror-stricken. The womenfolk saw me, wrung their hands, and lamented aloud.
"What are they crying about?" I wondered.
"Do you want some candy? Your uncle has plenty of it," said he, bending over me, as if to protect me. "Or maybe your feet hurt you? Let your uncle take you on his arms." As soon as I heard "candy," I felt that the man was the Catcher himself, and I tried to break away. But the "uncle" held me fast. Then I began to yell. It was near our house, and the people of our alley rushed towards us, some yelling, some crying, some armed with sticks. Pretty soon I recognized my mother's voice in the mixture of voices and noises. You see, peculiar is the charm of a mother's voice: a knife may be held to one's throat, but the mere sound of mother's voice awakens new courage and begets new hope. Mother made a way for herself, and fell upon the Catcher like a wild beast. She struck, she pinched, she scratched, she pulled his hair, she bit him. But what can a woman do in the line of beating? Nothing! Her neighbors joined her, one, two, three; and all tried hard to take me out of the hands of the Catcher. What can a few women do against one able-bodied man? Nothing at all! That happened during the dinner hour. One of our neighbors got the best of the Catcher, a woman who happened rather to dislike me and my mother; they quarreled frequently. Perhaps on account of this very dislike she was not over-excited, and was able to hit upon the right course to take at the critical moment. She went to our house, took in one hand a potful of roasted groats, ready for dinner, and in the other a kettle of boiling water. Unnoticed she approached the Catcher, spilled the hot groats upon his hands, and at the same time she poured the boiling water over them. A wild yell escaped from the mouth of the Catcher—and I was free.—
There was no more tobacco in the pipe, and the old man lost his speech. That was the way of Samuel the Beadle; he could tell his story only from behind the smoke of his pipe, when he did not see his hearers, nor his hearers saw him. In that way he found it easy to put his boyhood before his mind's eye and conjure up the reminiscences of those days. Meanwhile the horses had stopped, and let us know that a high and steep hill was ahead of us, and that it was our turn to trudge through the mud. We had to submit to the will of the animals, and we dismounted.
After tramping a while alongside the coach, the old man lit his pipe, emitted a cloud of smoke, and continued:—
I do not know what happened then. I cannot tell who caught me, nor the place I was taken to. I must have been in a trance all the while.
When I awoke, I found myself surrounded by a flock of sheep, in a meadow near the woods. Near me was my brother Solomon; but I hardly recognized him. He wore peasant clothes: a linen shirt turned out over linen breeches and gathered in by a broad belt. I was eyeing my brother, and he was eyeing me, both of us equally bewildered, for I was disguised like himself.
A little boy, a real peasant boy, was standing near us. He smiled at us in a good-natured, hospitable way. It was the chore-boy of the Jewish quarter. On the Sabbaths of the winter months he kept up the fires in the Jewish houses; that is why he could jabber a few words of Yiddish. During the summer he took care of the flocks of the peasants that lived in the neighborhood.
When I awoke, my mother was with us too. She kissed us amid tears, gave us some bread and salt, and, departing, strictly forbade us to speak any Yiddish. "For God's sake, speak no Yiddish," said she, "you might be recognized! Hide here till the Catcher leaves town."
It was easy enough to say, "Speak no Yiddish"; but did we know how to speak any other language?
I saw then that I was in a sort of hiding-place—a hiding-place under the open sky! I realized that I had escaped from houses, garrets, and cellars, merely to hide in the open field between heaven and earth. I had fled from darkness, to hide in broad daylight!
Indeed, it was not light that I had to fear. Nor was it the sun, the moon, or the sheep. It was only man that I had to avoid.
Mother went away and left us under the protection of the little shepherd boy. And he was a good boy, indeed. He watched us to the best of his ability. As soon as he saw any one approach our place, he called out loudly: "No, no; these are not Jewish boys at all! On my life, they are not!"
As a matter of facet, a stranger did happen to visit our place; but he was only a butcher, who came to buy sheep for slaughtering.
Well, the sun had set, and night came. It was my first night under an open sky. I suffered greatly from fear, for there was no Mezuzah anywhere near me. I put my hand under my Shaatnez clothes, and felt my Tzitzis: they, too, seemed to be in hiding, for they shook in my hand.
Over us the dark night sky was spread out, and it seemed to me that the stars were so many omens whose meaning I could not make out. But I felt certain that they meant nothing good so far as I was concerned. All kinds of whispers, sizzling sounds of the night, reached my ears, and I knew not where they came from.
Looking down, I saw sparks a-twinkling. I knew they were stars reflected in the near-by stream. But soon I thought it was not the water and the stars: the sheen of the water became the broad smile of some giant stretched out flat upon the ground; and the sparks were the twinkling of his eyes. And the sheep were not sheep at all, but some strange creatures moving to and fro, spreading out, and coming together again in knotted masses. I imagined they all were giants bewitched to appear as sheep by day and to become giants again by night. Then I knew too well that the thick, dark forest was behind me; and what doesn't one find in a forest? Is there an unholy spirit that cannot be found there? Z-z-z- - - - a sudden sizzling whisper reached my ear, and I began to cry.
"Why don't you sleep?" asked the shepherd boy in his broken Yiddish.
"I am afraid!"
"What are you afraid of?"
"Of—of—the woods . . . ."
"Ha—ha—ha—I have good dogs with the flock!"
I wanted a Mezuzah, some talisman, a protection against evil spirits, and that fool offered me barking dogs! All at once he whistled loudly, and his dogs set up a barking that nearly made me deaf. The flock was panic-stricken. I thought at first that the earth had opened her mouth, and packs of dogs were breaking out from hell.
The noise the dogs made broke the awful hush of the night, and my fears were somewhat dispelled.
But there were other reasons why I liked to hear the dogs bark. I was myself the owner of a dog, which I had raised on the sly in my father's house. Imagine the horror of my brother Solomon, who as a real Jewish lad was very much afraid of a dog!
In that way we spent a few days, hiding under the open sky, disguised in our Shaatnez clothes. Soon enough the time came when my parents had to understand what they would not understand when the rabbi wanted to give me up in place of the famous Avremel. For they caught my oldest brother Simhah, may he rest in peace. And Simhah was a privileged person; he was not only the Shohet of the community and a great Lamdan, but also a married man, and the father of four children to boot. Only then, it seems, my parents understood what the rabbi had understood before: that it was not fair to deliver up my brother when I, the ignorant fellow, the lover of dogs, might take his place. A few days later mother came and took us home. As to the rest, others had seen to it.—
Here the old man stopped for a while. He was puffing and snorting, tired from the hard walk uphill. Having reached the summit, he turned around, looked downhill, straightened up, and took a deep breath. "This is an excellent way of getting rid of your tired feeling," said he. "Turn around and look downhill: then your strength will return to you."—
We had left the coach far behind, and had to wait till it overtook us. Meanwhile I looked downhill into the valley below: it was a veritable sea of slush. The teams that followed ours sank into it, and seemed not to be moving at all. The oblique rays of the setting sun, reflected and radiating in every direction, lent a peculiar glitter to the slushy wagons and the broken sheet of mire, as if pointing out their beauty to the darkening sky. So much light wasted, I thought. But on the summit of the hill on which I was standing, the direct rays of the sun promised a good hour more of daylight.
The old man drew breath, and continued his story:—
Well, I was caught, and put into prison. I was not alone. Many young boys had been brought there. Some were crying bitterly; some looked at their companions wonderingly. We were told that the next day we should be taken away to some place, and that the rabbi wished to come to see us, but was not permitted to enter our prison.
Yes, a good man was the rabbi, may he rest in peace; yet he was compelled to cheat for once. And when an honest man is compelled to cheat he may outdo the cleverest crook. Do you want to know what the rabbi did? He disguised himself as a peasant, went out, and walked the streets with the rolling gait of a drunkard. The night guards stopped him, and asked him what his business was. "I am a thief," said the rabbi. Then the guards arrested him, and put him into the prison with us.
In the darkness of that night the rabbi never ceased talking to us, swallowing his own tears all the while. He told us the story of Joseph the righteous. It had been decreed in Heaven, said the rabbi, that his brethren should sell Joseph into slavery. And it was the will of the Almighty that Joseph should come to Egypt, to show the Egyptians that there is only one God in Heaven, and that the Children of Israel are the chosen people.
Then the rabbi examined us: Did we know our Modeh-Ani by heart? did we know our Shema?
He told us that we should be taken very, very far away, that we should be away many, many years, and should become soldiers when grown up. Then he warned us never to eat of any food forbidden by the Jewish law, and never to forget the God of Israel and our own people, even if they tore our flesh with thorns. He told us also the story of the Ten Martyrs, who sacrificed their lives to sanctify the God of Israel. He told us of the mother and her seven children that were killed for having refused to bow before idols; and he told us many more such things. All those saints and martyrs, he said, are now in Paradise, enjoying the bliss of the Divine Presence. That night I really envied those saints; I longed with all my heart to be forced to bow to idols, to have to withstand all sorts of trials, so as to enjoy, after my death, the bliss of the Divine Presence in Paradise.
Many more stories the rabbi told us; many more words of warning, encouragement, and praise came from his lips, till I really believed I was the one whom God had picked out from among my equals, to be put through great trials and temptations. . . .
Morning came, and the guard entered the prison. Then the rabbi turned towards us, and said: "Lambs of the God of Israel, we have to part now: I am going to be lashed and imprisoned for having entered this place by a trick, and you will be taken into exile, to undergo your trials! I may hardly expect to be found worthy of surviving till you return. But there, in the world-of-truth, we shall surely meet. May it be the will of God that I may have no reason to be ashamed of you there, before Him and His angels, in Heaven!"
We parted, and the words of the rabbi sank deep into my heart.
Then they began dumping us into wagons. The obstreperous boys, who tried to run away, were many of them bound with ropes and thrown into the wagon. Of course, we all howled.
I did not hear my own voice, nor the voice of my neighbor. It was all one great howl. A crowd of men and women followed our wagon—the parents of the boys. Very likely they cried, too; but we could not hear their voices. The town, the fields, heaven and earth, seemed to cry with us.
I caught sight of my parents, and my heart was filled with something like anger and hatred. I felt that I had been sacrificed for my brother.
My mother, among many other mothers, approached the wagon, looked at me, and apparently read my thoughts: she fainted away, and fell to the ground. The accident held up the crowd, which busied itself with reviving my mother, while our wagon rolled away.
My heart was filled with a mixture of anger, pity, and terror. In that mood of mixed feelings I parted from my parents.
We cried and cried, got tired, and finally became still from sheer exhaustion. Presently a noise reached our ears, something like the yelling of children. We thought it was another wagonload of boys like ourselves. But soon we found out our mistake: it was but a wagonload of sheep that were being taken to slaughter. . . .
Of course, we ate nothing the whole of that day, though the mothers had not failed to provide us with food. Meanwhile the sun had set; it got dark, and the boys who had been bound with ropes were released by the guard: he knew they would not attempt to escape at that time. We fell asleep, but every now and then one of the boys would wake up, crying, quietly at first, then louder and louder. Then another would join him; one more, and yet one more, till we all were yelling in chorus, filling the night air with our bitter cries. Even the guard could not stand it; he scolded us, and belabored us with his whip. That crying of ours reminds me of what we read in lamentations: "Weeping she hath wept in the night. . . ."
Morning came, and found us all awake: we were waiting for daylight. We believed it would bring us freedom, that angels would descend from Heaven, just as they had descended to our father Jacob, to smite our guard and set us free. At the same time, the rising sun brought us all a feeling of hunger. We began to sigh, each and every one of us separately. But the noise we made did not amount even to the barking of a few dogs or the cawing of a few crows. That is what hunger can do. And when the guard had distributed among us some of the food we had brought with us, we ate it with relish, and felt satisfied. At the same time we began to feel the discomfort we were causing one another, cooped up as we were in the wagon. I began to complain of my neighbor, who was sitting on my legs. He claimed that I was pressing against him with my shoulder. We all began to look up to the guard, as if expecting that he could or would prevent us from torturing one another.
Still I had some fun even on that day of weeping. I happened to turn around, and I noticed that Barker, my dog, was running after our wagon.
"Too bad, foolish Barker," said I, laughing at him in spite of my heartache. "Do you think I am going to a feast? It is into exile that I am going; and what do you run after me for?"—
This made old Samuel laugh; he laughed like a child, as if the thing had just happened before his eyes, and as if it were really comical. Meanwhile our coach had reached the top of the hill; we jumped into our seats, and proceeded to make one another uncomfortable.
The old man glanced at his son, who was sitting opposite to him. It was a loving and tender look, issuing from under long shaggy eyebrows, a beautiful, gentle, almost motherly look, out of accord with the hard-set face of an irritable and stern father.
The old man made his son's seat comfortable for him, and then fell silent.
I am going to pass over a long time—resumed the old man later. There was much traveling and many stops; much tramping on foot, with legs swollen; but all that has nothing to do with the subject.
Once in a while our guard would get angry at us, curse us bitterly, and strike us with his whip. "You cursed Jews," he would say, "do I owe you anything that I should suffer so much on your account, and undergo all the hardships of travel?"
Indeed, there was a good deal of truth in what he said. For, willingly or unwillingly, we did give him much trouble. Had we died, say the year before, or even at that very moment, he would not have been put to the necessity of leading a crowd of half-dumb boys. He would not have had to stand the hardships of travel, and would not have been compelled to listen to the wailings of children torn from the arms of their parents. Or do you think it is agreeable to feel that little children consider you a hard and cruel man? When I grew up and served in the army myself, and had people below me in age and position under my command, I came to understand the troubles of our guard; so that now, after having gone through many experiences, after I have passed, as they say, through fire and water, I may confess that I bear no malice towards all those at whose hands I suffered. There are many ex-Cantonists who cannot forget the birch-rod, for instance. Well, so much is true: for every misstep, for every sign of disobedience a whipping was due. If one of us refused to kneel in prayer before the crucifix; if one of us refused to eat pork; if one of us was caught mumbling a Hebrew prayer or speaking Yiddish, he was sure to get a flogging. Twenty, thirty, forty, or even full fifty lashes were the punishment. But, then, is it conceivable that they could have treated us any other way? Why, hundreds of Jewish children that did not understand a word of Russian had been delivered into the hands of a Russian official that did not understand a word of Yiddish. He would say, Take off my boots, and the boy would wash his hands. He would say, Sit down, and the boy would stand up. Were we not like dumb cattle? It was only the rod that we understood well. And the rod taught us to understand our master's orders by the mere expression of his eyes.
Then many of the ex-Cantonists still remember with horror the steam-bath they were compelled to take. "The chamber of hell," they called the bath. At first blush, it would really seem to have been an awful thing. They would pick out all the Cantonists that had so much as a scratch on their bodies or the smallest sign of an eruption, paint the wounds with tar, and put the boys, stripped, on the highest shelf in the steam-bath. And below was a row of attendants armed with birch-rods. The kettle was boiling fiercely, the stones were red-hot, and the attendants emptied jars of boiling water ceaselessly upon the stones. The steam would rise, penetrate every pore of the skin, and—sting! sting!—enter into the very flesh. The pain was horrible; it pricked, and pricked, and there was no air to breathe. It was simply choking. If the boy happened to roll down, those below stood ready to meet him with the rods.
All this is true. At the same time, was it mere cruelty? It is very simple: we were a lot of Jewish lads snatched from the arms of our mothers. On the eve of every Sabbath our mothers would take us in hand, wash us, comb our hair, change our underwear, and dress us in our Sabbath clothes. All at once we were taken into exile. Days, weeks, nay, months, we passed in the dust of the roads, in perspiration and dirt, and sleeping on the ground. Our underwear had not been changed. No water had touched our bodies. So we became afflicted with all kinds of eruptions. That is why we had to pass through what we called "the chamber of hell." And this will give you an idea of the rest.
To make a long story short: there were many of us, and we were distributed in various places. Many of the boys had taken ill; many died on the road. The survivors were distributed among peasants, to be brought up by them till they reached the age of entering the army. I was among the latter. Many months, maybe even years, I passed in knocking about from village to village, from town to town, till, at last, I came into the joint possession of a certain Peter Semionovich Khlopov and his wife Anna Petrovna. My master was neither old nor young; he was neither a plain peasant nor a nobleman. He was the clerk of the village. In those days that was considered a genteel occupation, honorable and well-paid. He had no sons, but he and one daughter, Marusya by name. She was then about fourteen years old, very good-looking, gay, and rather wild.
According to the regulations, all the Cantonists in the village had to report daily for military drill and exercise on the drill grounds before the house of the sergeant. He lived in the same village. At the request of my patron Khlopov I was excused from the daily drill, and had to report but once a week. You see, Peter expected to derive some benefit from me by employing me about the house and in the field.
Now it was surely through the merits of my ancestors that I happened to be placed in the household of Peter Khlopov. Peter himself spent but little of his time at home. Most of the time he was at the office, and his free moments he liked to spend at the tavern, which was owned by the only Jew in the village, "our Moshko" the Klopovs used to call him. But whenever he happened to be at home, Peter was very kind to me, especially when he was just a little tipsy. Perhaps he dreamt of adopting me as his son: he had no sons of his own. And he tried to make me like military service. "When you grow up," he sued to say, "you will become an officer, and wear a sword. Soldiers will stand at attention before you, and salute you. You will win distinction in battle, and be found worthy of being presented to the Czar." He also told me stories of Russian military life. By that time I had learned some Russian. They were really nice stories, as far as I could understand them; but they were made nicer yet by what I could not understand of them. For then I was free to add something to the stories myself, or change them according to my own fancy. If you are a lover of stories, take the advice of a plain old man like myself. Never pay any attention to stories in which everything has been prepared from the very start, and you can tell the end as soon as you begin to read them or listen to them. Such stories make one yawn and fall asleep. Stories of this kind my daughter reads to me once in a while, and I always fall asleep over them. Stories are good only when told the way Khlopov used to tell them to me.
But that is all irrelevant. In short, Khlopov was kind to me.
As to Anna, she was entirely different. She was close-mouthed, ill-tempered, and a great stay-at-home. She never visited her neighbors, and they, in turn, called on her very rarely. In the village she was spoken of as a snob and a hypocrite. Peter was afraid of her as of the plague, especially in his sober hours. All her power lay in her eyes. When that strong man—he who had the whole village in the palm of his hand—felt her eye fixed on him, his strength left him. It seemed as if some devil were ready to jump out of that eye and turn the house topsyturvy. You fellows are mere youngsters, you have seen nothing of the world yet; but take it from me, there are eyes that seem quite harmless when you first look into them, but just try to arouse their temper: you will see a hellish fire spring up in them. Have you ever looked into my Rebekah's eyes? Well, beware of the eyes.
The look Anna gave me when I first entered her house promised me nothing good. She hated me heartily. She never called me by my own name. She called me "Zhid" all the time, in a tone of deep hatred and contempt.
Among the orders the Cantonists had to obey were the following: to speak no Yiddish; to say no Jewish prayer; to recite daily a certain prayer before the image of the Virgin and before the crucifix, and not to abstain from non-kosher food.
With regard to all injunctions except the last, Anna was very strict with me. But she was not very particular as to the last injunction. Out of sheer stinginess she fed me on bread and vegetables, and that in the kitchen. Once she did offer me some meat, and I refused to touch it. Then she got very angry, flew into a temper, and decided to complain to the sergeant. But Peter did not let her be so cruel. "Let him grow up, he will know better," said Peter, waving his hand at me.
Then Anna made up her mind to force me to eat forbidden meat. But I was obstinate. And she decided once more to complain to the sergeant. Just at that time another Cantonist had been found guilty of some offense. He belonged to the same village; his name was Jacob. I did not know him at that time. His patron complained that Jacob had persisted in reciting Hebrew prayers, and that he abstained from meat. Jacob was condemned to twenty lashes with rods. An order was issued that all Cantonists should assemble to witness the flogging of the offender.
In the course of time we got used to such sights; but the first time we were terribly shocked. Just imagine: a lad of about fifteen is stripped, put on the ground face downwards; one man sits on his head, and another on his feet. Two men are put on either side of him, each with a bundle of birch-rods in his hand. Ten times each of them has to strike him with the rods, to make up the twenty lashes. I looked at the face of the culprit; it was as white as chalk. His lips were moving. I thought he was reciting the prayer: "And He, the Merciful, will forgive sin, and will not destroy. . . ." Up went the rods, down they went: a piercing cry . . . . blood . . . . flaps of loose skin . . . . cries . . . . "one, two, three" . . . . again cries . . . . sudden silence . . . . more cries . . . . again silence . . . . "four, five" . . . . "stop!"
Because the culprit fainted, the sergeant in the goodness of his heart divided the punishment into two parts. Jacob was carried off to the hospital, and it was put down in the book that he was to get ten more lashes after his recover.
I went home.
Had Anna given me a piece of pork to eat that evening, I do not know what I should have done.
That night I saw the old rabbi in my dream. He was standing before me, with bowed head and tears dropping from his eyes. . . . .
I do not remember the way Marusya treated me at first. But I do remember the look she gave me when I first entered her father's house. There are trifling matters that one remembers forever. Hers was a telltale look, wild and merry. It is hard to describe it in words—as if she wanted to say, "Welcome, friend! You did well in coming here. I need just you to pass my leisure hours with me!" And she really needed someone like myself, for she never associated with the children of the village. The beautiful lively girl used to have her fits of the blues. Then it was impossible to look at her face without pitying her. At such times her mother could not get a word out of her, and the whole expression of her face was changed to such an extent that she seemed to have aged suddenly. She would look the very image of her mother then. And a peculiar expression would steal over her face, which estranged her from other people, and perhaps brought her nearer to me. During those fits of despondency she was sure to follow me if I happened to leave the room and go outside. She would join me and spend hour after hour in childish prattle with me, and her merriment and wildness knew no limits. Little by little I got used to her, and fell, in turn, a longing for her company during my own fits of lonesomeness.
The day after I had witnessed Jacob's punishment I felt miserable. I was restless and excitable, and did not know what to do with myself. I thought my heart would burst within me. I asked myself all kinds of questions: What am I doing here? What did I come here for? What are all those people to me? As if I had come there only the day before, and of my own free will. . . .
Marusya looked sharply at me. Very likely she recognized that something was worrying me. I felt a desire to share my feelings with her. I got up and walked out into the garden behind the house. In a moment she followed me. I made a clean breast of it, and told her all I had to witness the day before.
She listened, shivering, and asked in a tremulous voice:
"And what did they beat him for?"
"He said a Hebrew prayer, and refused to eat meat."
"And why did he refuse to eat meat?"
"It is forbidden."
I was silent.
She also became silent; then she laid her hand on me, and said with her usual merriment:
"They will not beat you."
"How do you know?"
"The sergeant is a good friend of ours."
"But if your mother should complain about me?"
"Then I shall go in your stead, if they should decide to switch you."
She laughed heartily at her own suggestion. Her laughter made me laugh too; we both laughed, and laughed without knowing why. And in a mood completely changed I returned to the house. After that I felt very near to the girl.
Well, time passed, months and years: I lost track of them. But I do remember that the time had come when I knew enough Russian to make myself understood, and fit for any kind of work about the house and in the field, and could give my patron entire satisfaction.
One day, I remember, I tried very hard to have my work well and promptly done, so as to earn, for once, the good-will of Anna herself. I felt a longing for the friendly smile of a mother. But Anna kept going in and out, and did not pay the least attention to me. I was sitting on the bench outside the house alone. My dog was lying at my feet, looking at me very intently. His eyes seemed to be full of tears. And let me tell you by the way, his lot in the house was entirely different from mine. When he first entered Peter's courtyard, the dogs met him with howls. He tried to find shelter in the kitchen, but was chased out with sticks. "Where did that tramp come from?" wondered the people. Then my Barker saw that he could expect no charity from the people, and he put his trust in his own teeth. He stood up bravely, and fought all the dogs of the household till blood flowed. Then only did the masters of the house appreciate his doggish virtues and accomplishments. They befriended him, and allowed him his rations. So my Barker saved his skin. Yet his lot did not seem to please him. He recognized, by some peculiar dog-sense, that I, his fellow in exile, was unhappy myself and sorry for him too. He felt that somehow his own days of prosperity would not last long. Whenever I sat about lonely and moping, he would stretch himself at my feet, and look straight into my eyes, with an expression of earnestness and wonderment, as if he wanted to ask me, How is that, why don't you fight for your rights the way I did?
Presently Anna came out, shot a glance at me, and said:
"Well, now, there is the lazy Zhid sitting idle, and I have to work and prepare meals for him, so that he may find everything ready!" I got up, and began to look around for something to do.
"Go, catch the little pig and bring it over here," ordered Anna.
The day before I had overheard her say that it was time to kill the little pig. I did not relish the job by any means. I felt sorry for the porkling: mere pig though it was, it had after all grown up in our house. And it was hard on me to have a hand in the affair. But one angry word of Anna's set me a-going. In a moment my hand was on the animal, which trusted me and believed in me implicitly. Then Anna handed me a rope to bind it. I did as she wanted; the pig started to squeal and squeak horribly. To me it sounded like "Zhid, Zhid, is that the way to treat me?"
Then Anna handed me a knife, and showed me where to make the cut. . . . The pig began to bleed fearfully, gurgling, and choking with his own blood. Forthwith Anna ordered wood to be brought, a fire to be kindled, and the pig to be put upon it. I did all as I had been ordered. My dog was watching me intently, greatly bewildered; the pig groaned and groaned; the flames licked his body and embraced it—and my dog was barking and yelping away up into the sky.
That night I dreamt that my brother the Shohet and I were on trial in Heaven before the seat of judgment, with various animals complaining against us. Only clean fowl, such as geese, pigeons, and the like were complaining against my brother, and they all pleaded in clear, good Hebrew, saying, "Was it for your own consumption that you killed us all?" . . . . But it was only the pig that complained against me, and it pleaded in screeches and grunts that nobody could understand. . . .
The next morning Anna got up early, and made me stand before the ikon of the Virgin and recite a certain prayer. At dinner she seated me alongside of Peter, gave me some roast pork, and looked sharply at me. I guess, while making all those preparations, Anna had only one thing in mind: to put Peter up against me while he was drunk. I took fright, and began to chew away at the pork. But then the screeches and the grunts of the pig rang in my ears, and I thought they came right from within my insides; I wondered how they could listen to all that, and yet eat the pork in perfect comfort. Suddenly a lump in my throat began to choke me. . . . Nausea, retching . . . . and something happened to me: I vomited everything out, right on the table. Everybody jumped away from the table in disgust and anger. I met Marusya's eye, and was ashamed to look into it. Anna got up, boiling with rage, and took me by the ear, and pulled me outside: "Get out of here, you dirty Zhid; and don't you dare enter my house any more!"
Well, she chased me out. Peter and Marusya kept quiet. Thoroughly miserable, I dropped down on the bench behind the house; my dog stretched himself out on the ground at my feet and looked into my eyes. Then I began to talk to my fellow in misfortune: "Do you hear, doggie, we have been chased out. . . . What does that mean? did we come here of our own free will? It is by force that we were brought here; so what sense is there in chasing us out?"
And I thought my dog understood me; a sound came from the depths of his throat, and died away there. Then a thought began to haunt me: Maybe it is really time to run away. If they run after me and overtake me, I shall simply say that my patron chased me out of his house. And the thought, Home! to your parents! took possession of me, and tortured me ceaselessly. Said I to myself: "If they chase me out, I am certainly free!" But then, just see the power of the birch-rod: I knew well that much time would pass before my patron would notice my absence; and before the sergeant was informed, and people were dispatched to pursue me, more time would pass. Then I should be far away from the place. By that time I was quite hardened; I was not afraid to hide in the woods; devils and evil spirits I did not fear any more. I had learned well enough that no devil will ever trouble a man as much as one human being can trouble another. And yet, when I remembered the swish of the rods over the naked flesh, the spurting blood, the loose flaps of skin, and the futile outcries, I was paralyzed with fear. No, it was not really fear: it was a sort of submissive adoration. Had a birch-rod been lying near me, I should have kissed it with fear and respect. It is hard for me to explain to you. You youngsters are not capable of understanding.
And as I was sitting there, full of gloomy thoughts, I did not notice that the sun had set, and night had come. It got so dark that I could not see my dog lying at my feet. Suddenly I felt something touch me and pass lightly over my hair. I thought it was an ant or a night moth, and I raised my hand to chase it away. Then it changed its place, and I felt it at the nape of my neck. I tried to catch the thing that was making my neck itch, and caught a hand, soft and warm. I shuddered and started back: before me was Marusya, bending over me. I wanted to get up, but she put her hands on me heavily, sat down at my side, all the while pressing my hand between hers.
"Why are you sitting here?" she asked.
"Didn't your mother chase me out?"
"That is nothing. Don't you know her temper? That is her way."
"She keeps nagging at me all the time, and calls me nothing but Zhid, Zhid."
"And what of it? Aren't you a Jew? Should I feel insulted if some one were to call me Christian?!"
I had nothing to say. And it dawned upon me at that moment that I was really insulting myself by objecting to being called Zhid. True, Anna meant to jeer at me and insult me; but did it depend on her alone?
"And what are you going to do now?" asked Marusya.
"I want to run away."
"Without telling me?"
She peered into my face, and I felt as if two streams of warmth had emptied themselves into me. My eyes had become somewhat accustomed to the darkness, and I could discern every movement of her body. A delicate smile was playing around her mouth, and my feeling of despondency was giving way before it. I felt that after all I had a friend in the house, a good, loving, and beautiful friend.
I shuddered and broke out into tears. Then she began to play caressingly with my hair and pat me on my neck and face. She did well to let me have my cry out. By and by I felt relieved. She wanted to withdraw her hand, but then I held it fast.
"So you were going to run away, and that without my knowledge?" said she.
"No," I said with a deep sigh.
"And if I should ever call you Zhid, will you be angry with me?"
"No," answered I, thoroughly vanquished.
"Well, then you are a dear boy, and I like you!"
I felt the touch of soft, warm lips on my neck . . . . I closed my eyes, that the dark night sky and the shining stars might not see me. And when I recognized what had happened to me, I felt ashamed. Marusya disappeared, and soon returned with a bag in her hand.
"Papa said you should go out with the horses for the night. Here is some food in the bag. Take it and go out."
This she shot out quickly, and in a tone of authority, as befits the daughter of the patron, and as if what had passed between us were nothing but a dream.
"Going out for the night" was a peculiar custom. You can have no idea of what it meant. The logic of it was this: The cattle that had been worked the whole of the day were, to be sure, earning their fodder for the day. And the owners felt under obligation and necessity to feed them during their working hours. But how about the night, when the animals rested, and did no work? Where should the fodder for the night time come from? So the custom developed of letting the animals browse in some neighbor's meadow during the night. That was cheaper. But that neighbor also had cattle; he, too, had horses that did not earn their feed during the night. Do you know what the neighbor did? He did the same. He, too, sent out his horses stealthily, into his neighbor's meadow. So, in the long run, every one had his cattle browse secretly in some neighbor's meadow, and all were happy. But when the trespassing shepherd happened to be caught poaching, he got a whipping. And yet, strictly speaking, it was not stealing; it was a mere usage. The land-owners seemed to have agreed beforehand: "If you happen to catch my shepherd poaching, you may whip him, provided you do not object if I give a whipping to your shepherd on a similar occasion." In spite of all this I rather liked "going out for the night." I loved those nights in the open field. When the moon gave but little light, and one could see but a few steps away, I forgot my immediate surroundings, and my imagination was free! I would peer into the open sky, would bring before my mind's eye father and mother and all who were dear to me, and would feel near to them; for the sky that spread over all of us was the very same. I could imagine my father celebrating the new moon with a prayer. I could imagine my mother watching for the same star I was looking at; I could imagine that we were really looking at the same spot. . . . Then tears would come into my eyes. My mother, I would think, was crying, too. And the night listened to me, and the stars listened to me. . . . The crickets chirped, and if I chose, I could believe they shared my sorrows with me, and were sighing over my fate. . . .
Idle fancy, nonsense, you think; but when one has nothing real to look up to, dreams are very sweet. A light breeze would steal over me, refresh me, and bring me new hope; and I trusted I should not be a prisoner always, the day of my release would surely come. At such happy moments I would fall asleep gazing at the stars. And if the sudden whip of the landowner did not put an end to my dreams, I would dream away, and see things no language could describe.
Well, I took the bag and led the horses out into the open field. But that time, out of sheer spite or for some other reason, I did not go into our neighbor's field, but descended right into the valley that my patron had left lying fallow, and stretched myself upon the soft grass of the hospitable turf.
That night I longed to bring father and mother before my mind's eye and have an imaginary talk with them. But I did not succeed. Instead, the figure of the old rabbi hovered before my eyes. It seemed to me that he was looking at me angrily, and telling me the story of Joseph the righteous: how he lived in the house of Potiphar, and ate nothing but vegetables.
But when I reminded myself of Joseph the righteous, I felt my heart sink at the thought of what Marusya had done to me. I could not deny that the good looks of the Gentile girl were endearing her to me, that out of her hands I would eat pork ten times a day, and that in fact I myself was trying to put up a defense of her. I took all the responsibility on myself. I was ready to believe that she did not seek my company, but that it was I who called her to myself. I was a sinner in my own estimation, and I could not even cry. Then it seemed to me that the sky was much darker than usual, and the stars did not shine at all. With such thought in my mind I fell asleep.
I awoke at the sound of voices. Some one is crying, I thought. The sound seemed near enough. It rose and rose and filled the valley. It made me shudder. The soft, plaintive chant swelled and grew louder, as if addressed to me. It gripped my very heart. I stood up all in a shiver, and started to walk in the direction of the sound. But around me, up and down, on every side, was total darkness. The moon had set long ago. I moved away only a few steps from the horses, and could not make them out any more. By and by I could distinguish some words, and I recognized the heart-gripping chant of a Hebrew Psalm. . . .
"For the Lord knoweth the path of the righteous, And the path of the wicked shall perish." . . .
My fears vanished, and gave place to a feeling of surprise.
"Where can that chanting come from," thought I, "and here in exile, too?"
Then I began to doubt it all, thinking it was but a dream.
"Why do the nations rage, And the peoples imagine a vain thing?"
The voices were drawing me forward irresistibly, and I decided to join the chorus, come what might. And I continued the Psalm in a loud voice:
"The kings of the earth stood up . . . . "
The chanting ceased; I heard steps approaching me.
"Who is there?" asked a voice in Yiddish.
"It is I," answered I, "and who are you?"
"It is we!" shouted many voices in chorus.
"A Cantonist, too?"
Thus exchanging questions, we met. They turned out to be three Cantonists, who lived in a village at some distance from Peter's house. I had never met them before. They, too, had "gone out for the night," and we had happened to use the same valley.
I love to mention their names. The oldest of them was Jacob, whom you remember from the punishment he underwent. The others were Simeon and Reuben. But there in the valley they introduced themselves to me with the names they were called by at home: Yekil, Shimele, and Ruvek. I found out later that the valley was their meeting-place. It was a sort of Klaus, "Rabbi Yekil's Klaus" the boys called it. Yekil was a boy of about fifteen, who was well-equipped with knowledge of the Torah when he was taken away from his home.
In the long years of our exile we had forgotten the Jewish calendar completely. But Yekil prided himself on being able to distinguish the days "by their color and smell," especially Fridays; and his friends confirmed his statements. He used to boast that he could keep track of every day of the year, and never miss a single day of the Jewish holidays. Every Jewish holiday they met in the valley on Peter's estate. According to Yekil's calendar, the eve of the Fast of the Ninth of Av fell on that very day. That is why they had gathered in the valley that night. "If so," said I, "what is the use of reciting that Psalm? Were it not more proper to recite Lamentations?"
"We do not know Lamentations by heart," explained Yekil, with the authority of a rabbi, "but we do know some Psalms, and these we recite on every holiday. For, at bottom, are mere words the main thing? Your real prayer is not what you say with your lips, but what you feel with the whole of your heart. As long as the words are in the holy tongue, it all depends on the feelings you wish to put into them. As my father, may he rest in peace, used to instruct me, the second Psalm is the same as the festival hymn, 'Thou hast chosen us from among the nations,' if you feel that way; or it may be the same as Lamentations. It all depends on the feelings in our heart, and on the meaning we wish to put into the words!"
Yekil's talk and the sounds of Yiddish speech, which I had not heard since I left home, impressed me in a wonderful way. Here I found myself all at once in the company of Jews like father and mother. But I felt very much below that wonderful boy who could decide questions of Jewish law like some great rabbi. Indeed, he seemed to me little short of a rabbi in our small congregation. Then I began to feel more despondent than ever. I considered myself the sinner of our little community. I knew I was guilty of eating pork and of other grave trespasses, and I felt quite unworthy of being a member of the pious congregation.
Meanwhile little Reuben discovered the contents of my bag.
"Boys, grub!" exclaimed he, excitedly. At the word "grub" the congregation was thrown into a flutter. That was the way of the Cantonists. They could not help getting excited at the sight of any article of food, even when they were not hungry at all. In the long run our patrons fed us well enough, and on the whole we could not complain of lack of food. But we were fed according to the calculations of our patrons, and not according to our own appetites. So it became our habit to eat whenever victuals were put before us, even on a full stomach. "Eat whenever you have something to eat, so as not to go hungry when there may be no rations." That was a standing rule among the Cantonists. They began fumbling in my bag, and I was dying with shame at the thought that soon they would discover the piece of pork, and that my sin would become known to the pious congregation. Then I broke down, and with tears began to confess my sins.
"I have sinned," said I, sobbing, "it is pork. I could not withstand the temptation."
At that moment it seemed to me that Yekil was the judge, and the boys who had found the pork were the witnesses against me. Yekil listened to my partial confession, and the two "witnesses" hung their heads, and hid their faces in shame, as if they were the accused. But I sobbed and cried bitterly.
"Now, listen, little one," Yekil turned to me. "I do not know whether you have suffered the horrors of hell that we have suffered. Did they paint your body with tar, and put you up on the highest shelf in the steam-bath, and choke you with burning steam? Did they flog you with birch-rods for having been caught mumbling a Hebrew prayer? Did they make you kneel for hours on sharp stones for having refused to kiss the ikon and the crucifix? Did they discover you secretly kissing the Arba-Kanfos, and give you as many lashes as there are treads in the Tzitzis? If you have not passed through all that, uncover our backs, and count the welts that still mark them! And to this you must add the number of blows I have still to get, simply because my little body could not take in at once all it was expected to take in. And yet, not a day passed without our having recited our Modeh-Ani. As to eating pork, we abstained from it in spite of the rods. Then they gave up flogging us; but, instead of that punishment, they gave us nothing but pork to eat. Two days we held out; we did not touch any food. We did not get even a drink of water. Do you see little Simeon? Well, he tried to eat the grass in the courtyard. . . . On the third day of our fast I saw my father in my dream. He was dressed in his holiday clothes, and holding the Bible in his hands he quoted the passage, 'Be ye mindful of your lives.' Suddenly, the earth burst open, and the Angel of Death appeared. He had rods in one hand and a piece of swine's flesh in the other. He put the piece of pork into my mouth. I looked up, terror-stricken, to my father, but he smiled. His smile filled the place with light. He said to me, 'Eatest thou this of thy own free will?' Then he began to soar upwards, and called out to me from afar: 'Tell all thy comrades, the Cantonists: Your reward is great. Every sigh of yours is a prayer, every good thought of yours is a good action! Only beware, lest you die of hunger; then surely you will merit eternal punishment!'
"I awoke. Since then we eat all kinds of forbidden food. The main thing is that we have remained Jews, and that as Jews we shall return home to our parents. It is clear to me now that the Holy One, blessed by He, will not consider all that a sin on our part!"
I felt as if a heavy load had been taken off my shoulders. My eyes began to flow with tears of gladness. Then, having once started my confession, I decided to confess to my second sin also. Meanwhile Simeon had pulled the bread and the meat out of my bag.
"Glutton!" exclaimed Yekil, angrily. "Have you forgotten that it is the night of the Fast of the Ninth of Av?"
The boy, ashamed, returned the things to the bag, and moved away a few steps. Then I told Yekil all that had passed between me and Marusya, and tried unconsciously to defend her in every way. I think I exaggerated a good deal when I tried to show that Marusya liked the Jews very much, indeed.
"And what was the end of it?" asked Yekil, with some fear. "Did she really kiss you?" The other boys echoed the question. I looked down, and said nothing.
"Is she good-looking?"
I still gave no answer.
"I have forgotten your name. What is it?"
"Now listen, Samuel, this is a very serious affair. It is much worse than what is told of Joseph the righteous. Do you understand? I do not really know how to make it clear to you. It is very dangerous to find good and true friends right here in exile, in the very ranks of our enemies."
"Why?" wondered I.
"I cannot tell you, but this is how I feel. Insulted and outraged we have been brought here; insulted and outraged we should depart from here. Ours is the right of the oppressed; and that right we must cherish till we return home."
"I do not understand!"
Jacob looked at me sharply, and said: "Well, I have warned you; keep away from her."
His words entered into the depths of my heart. I bowed my head before Yekil, and submitted to his authority. That was the way we all felt: Yekil had only to look at us to subject us to his will. It was hard to resist him.
I felt a great change in myself: I had been relieved of the weight of two sins. Of one I had been absolved completely, and the other I had confessed in public and repented of. I gladly joined the little congregation, and we returned to our Psalms, which we recited instead of Lamentations. At the conclusion I proposed that we chant the Psalm "By the rivers of Babylon," which we all knew by heart.
And we, a congregation of four little Jews, stood up in the valley on the estate of Peter Khlopov, concealed by steep hills and by the darkness of the night: thieves for the benefit of our masters, and mourners of Zion on our own account. . . . And we chanted out of the depths of our hearts:
"By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat and wept, remembering Zion." . . .
We chanted the whole of it, sat down and wept, remembering at the same time all we had gone through ourselves, and also the position we were in at that time.—
Here old Samuel shuddered and stopped abruptly. The sun had set, and he reminded himself that he had forgotten to say his afternoon prayer. He jumped down hastily, washed his hands in a near-by pool, returned to his seat, and became absorbed in his devotion.
By and by the streaks of light disappeared in the twilight sky, and the wintry night threw the mantle of thick and misty blackness over us.
Presently I heard the old man conclude his prayer: "When the world will be reclaimed through the kingship of the Almighty; when all mortals will acknowledge Thy name. . . . on that day the Lord will be One, and His name will be One!"
Out of the darkness came the devout words; they seemed to take wing, as though to pierce the shrouding mist and scatter it; but they themselves were finally dissolved in the triumph and blackness. . . .
I did not have to urge the old man to continue his tale. His prayers over, he picked up the thread of his narrative, as if something were driving him to give a full account of what he had passed through.—
The day I became acquainted with Jacob—continued the old man—I consider the beginning of a new period in my life. I became accustomed to consider him my superior, whose behavior had to be taken as an example. Jacob spoke as an authority whenever he did speak, and he never wavered in his decisions. Whenever he happened to be in doubt, his father would "instruct" him in his dreams. Thus we lived according to Jacob's decisions and dreams. I got used to eating forbidden food, to breaking the Sabbath, and trespassing against all the ordinances of the ritual without compunction. And yet Jacob used to preach to us, to bear floggings and all kinds of punishments rather than turn traitor to our faith. So I got the notion that our faith is neither prayers, nor a collection of ordinances of varying importance, but something I could not name, nor point to with my finger. Jacob, I thought, certainly knows all about it; but I do not. All I could was to feel it; so could Anna. Otherwise she would not have called me Zhid, and would not have hated me so much, in spite of seeing me break all the ordinances of the Jewish ritual.
At times I thought that I and my comrades were captains in God's army, that all His ordinances were not meant for us, but for the plain soldiers of the line. They, the rank and file, must be subjected to discipline, must know how to submit to authority; all of which does not apply to the commanding officers. It seemed to me that this was what the Holy One, blessed be He, had deigned to reveal to us through the dreams of Jacob: there is another religion for you, the elect. You will surely know what is forbidden, and what is permitted. . . .
Sometimes, again, I imagined that I might best prove true to my faith if I set my heart against the temptation that Satan had put before me in the person of Marusya. If I turned away from her, I thought, I might at once gain my share in the future world. So I armed myself against Marusya's influence in every possible way. I firmly resolved to throw back at her any food she might offer me. If she laid her hand on me, I would push it away from me, and tell her plainly that I was a Jew, and she—a nobody.
So I fought with her shadow, and, indeed, got the best of it as long as she herself was away. But the moment she appeared, all my weapons became useless. She made me feel like one drunk. I could not withstand the wild-fire of her eye, nor the charm of her merry talk, nor the wonderful attraction of her whole person. At the same time there was not a trace of deviltry about her: it was simply an attraction which I could not resist. And when she laid her soft hand on me, I bent under it, and gave myself up entirely. And she did what she wanted: where buttons were missing, she sewed them on; and where a patch was needed, she put it in. She was a little mother to me. She used to bring me all kinds of delicacies and order me to eat them; and I could not disobey her. In short, she made me forget Jacob and his teachings. But the moment I met Jacob I forgot Marusya's charms, and reminded myself that it was sinful to accept favors in exile. Then I would repent of my past actions from the very depths of my heart—till I again was face to face with Marusya. I was between the hammer and the anvil.
My meetings with Jacob were regular and frequent. After what according to Jacob's calendar was the Ninth of Av, we met nightly in the valley on Peter's estate, till a disagreement broke out among us. I would not permit the cattle of the whole neighborhood to browse on the estate of my patron, and Simeon and Reuben would not agree to let my patron's horses be brought to the meadows of their patrons. Our congregation nearly broke up. But here Jacob intervened with his expert decision.
"Boys," said he, "you must know that 'going out for the night' is really a form of stealing. True, we do not steal for our own benefit. Yet, as long as we have a hand in it, we must manage it in a fair way. So let us figure out how many horses every one of our patrons possesses. And let us arrange the nights according to the number of horses each of the patrons has. According to this calculation we shall change places. We shall spend more nights in the meadows of those who have more horses. That will make 'fair stealing.'"
The plan of Jacob was accepted, not as a proposition, but as an order. Since that time we began to "steal with justice." And our patrons slept peacefully, delighted with their unpunished thievery, till a Gentile boy, one Serge Ivanovich, joined us on one of his own "nights." He was the son of the village elder, and a cousin of Peter Khlopov. He was compelled to obey Jacob, but the next morning he blabbed about it all over the village.
Of course, our patrons were angry. Jacob took the whole blame on himself, and suffered punishment for all of us. Then "Jacob's Klaus" was closed, because our patrons gave up sending us out "for the night."
Well, if you please, their dissatisfaction was not entirely groundless: they found themselves fooled by us, and cheated in a way. For every one of them had been thinking that his horse would bring him some profit every night, equal to the value of the horse's browsing. Seven nights, seven times that profit; thirty nights, thirty times that profit. . . . All at once these "profits" had vanished: it turned out that every horse had been browsing at the expense of his own master; so the expected profits became a total loss. Of course, stealing is stealing. But then, they argued, had the Zhid youngsters any right to meddle with their affairs? Was it their property that was being stolen? As one of my Gentile acquaintances told me once: "The trouble with the Jews is that they are always pushing themselves in where they are not wanted at all."
Indeed, it was this fault of ours that Serge kept pointing out to me and berating us for. Well, Jacob's Klaus had been closed. But we managed to get together in different places. Once in a while we came to see one another at our patron's houses, and they did not object.
I do not know who told Marusya what kind of a chap Jacob was, and what he thought of her; but she hated him from the moment she first saw him, when he came to visit me.
"He is a real savage," she would say. "I never saw such a Jew. I am simply afraid of him. I am afraid of those wild eyes of his. I detest him, anyway." That is what she used to tell me.
Whenever Jacob came to see me, and Marusya happened to be in the room, she would walk out immediately, and would not return before he was out of the house. I rather liked it. I could not be giving in to both of them at the same time.
Such were the surroundings that shaped my life during those days. Peter befriended me; but Anna kept on worrying me and making me miserable. Marusya loved me as a sister loves a brother, and the fire of her eyes ate into my heart. Jacob kept preaching to me that it was wrong to accept favors from Gentiles, and that we had to fight for our faith. Serge became my bitter enemy from the time he betrayed our scheme of "honest stealing."
To top it all, my sergeant tried to put me through the paces of the military drill, and succeeded.
But my own self seemed to have been totally forgotten and left out of the account.
By and by the summer passed, and most of the following winter; and in the Khlopov household preparations were made for some holiday, I forget which. Those days of preparation were our most miserable days in exile. When Anna was busy on the eve of a holiday, I could not help remembering our own Sabbath eves at home, the Sabbath days in the Klaus, as well as the other holidays, and all the things that are so dear to the heart of the Jewish boy. That was the time when I felt especially lonely and homesick; it was as though a fever were burning within me. Then neither tears nor even Marusya's company did me any good. I felt as if red-hot coals had been packed up right here in my breast. Did you ever feel that way? I felt like rolling on the ground and pressing my chest against something hard. I felt I was going mad. I felt like jumping, crying, singing, and fighting all at once. I felt as if even lashes would be welcome, simply to get rid of that horrible heartache.
On that particular day Khlopov was late in coming home. Marusya remarked that she had seen her father enter the tavern. Then Anna began to curse "our Moshko," the tavern keeper. Marusya objected:
"Tut, tut, mother, is it any of Moshko's fault? Does he compel papa to go there? Does he compel him to drink?"
Then Anna few into a temper, and poured out a torrent of curses and insults on Marusya. I don't know what happened to me then. My blood was up; my fists tightened. It was a dangerous moment; I was ready to pounce upon Anna. I did not know that Marusya had been watching me all the while from behind, and understood all that was passing within me. Presently the door opened, and Khlopov entered, rather tipsy, hopping and jigging. That was his way when in his cups. When he was under the influence of liquor, his soul seemed to spread beyond its usual limits and light up his face with smiles. At such moments he would be ready to hug, to kiss, or to cry; or else to curse, to fight, and to laugh at the same time.
Right here you can see the difference between the Jew and the Gentile. The finer soul of the Jew may contract and settle on the very point of his nose. But the grosser soul of the Gentile needs, as it were, more space to spread over. This, I believe, is why Khlopov never failed to get a clean shave on the eve of every holiday.
As soon as Khlopov had entered the room, he began to play with me and Marusya. He gave us candy, and insisted on dancing a jig with us.
Anna met him with a frown: "Drunk again?" But this time her eyes seemed to have no power over Khlopov. He could not stand it any longer, and gave tit for tat. "Zhidovka!" he shouted. I looked at Anna: she turned red. Marusya blushed. Khlopov sobered up, and his soul shrank to its usual size. Anna went to her room. The spell was broken.
The word "Zhidovka" hurled at Anna made me start back. What could it mean, I wondered. I felt sorry for Khlopov, for Marusya, for Anna, and for the holiday mood that had been spoilt by a single word. And it seemed to me it was my fault to some extent. Who, I thought, had anything in common with Zhidovka if not myself? Or was it Khlopov?—
Here the old man was interrupted by the neighing of the horses.
The forward horse seemed to be getting proud of the comparative freedom he enjoyed, and bit his neighbor, only to remind him of it. The latter, unable to turn around in the harness, resented the insult by kicking. But then the driver plied the whip, and there was peace again.
"Would you take the trouble to dismount? Just walk up that hill: it will do you good to warm yourselves up a little after sitting so long in one place."
That was the driver's suggestion; and as no one refuses obedience to drivers on the road, we dismounted.
The next day—resumed the old man—the situation became a little clearer to me. Marusya told me that according to the gossip of the village her mother was a converted Jewess. She, Marusya, was not so sure of it. Her father would call her mother a Jewess once in a while, but that happened only when he was drunk. So she did not know whether he merely repeated the village gossip, or had his own information in the matter. And when she asked her mother, the latter would fly into a temper.
"Papa himself," said Marusya, "likes Jews; but mother hates them. I like papa more than mamma; I also like Jews; I often play with Moshko's girls when mother is not around. I do not understand why mother dislikes Jews so much."
Then Marusya insisted I should tell her the real truth about the Jews, as they are at home: were they like myself, or like Jacob, the wild one? But I stopped listening to her chatter, and began to think of what she had told me about her mother. For in case it was true that Anna was a convert, then—why, then Marusya herself was half a Jewess. I decided to solve the mystery.
Now let me tell you that as a result of our Cantonist training we were not only as bold as eagles, as courageous as lions, as swift as the deer in doing the will of our patrons, but also as sly as foxes in finding a way out of a difficulty. And, by the way, that was also the opinion of our late commander, Colonel Pavel Akimovich. A keen-eyed commander and a kind-hearted master was he, may his lot be in Paradise among the godly men of the Gentile tribes. Yes, if he was an eagle, we were his chicks; if he was a lion, we were his whelps! This is what he used to say: "In time of need, you have no better soldier than the Jew. But then you must know how to use him. Do not give him too many instructions, and do not try to explain it all to him from beginning to end. If you instruct him too much, he will be afraid to do any scheming on his own hook, and you will be the loser. Just give him your order, and tell him what the order is for. Then you may be sure he will get it for you, even if he should have to go to hell for it!" This is what Colonel Pavel Akimovich used to say of us.
Now, once I decided to find out Anna's secret, I thought it all out beforehand, as a Cantonist should; and I hit upon a plan.
That was at the beginning of spring. One day Khlopov left on a journey to the neighboring villages to collect the taxes. He had to stay away some time. The whole of that day Anna kept worrying me as usual. She sent me on unnecessary errands, she wanted me to be in two places at the same time. She yelled, she cursed, she shook me, and mauled me, she pulled me by the ears. She knew well how to make one miserable. When night came, I went to sleep in the anteroom; that was my bedroom. Anna was abed, but not asleep. Marusya had long been asleep. Then Anna remembered that she had forgotten to close the door leading to the anteroom, and she ordered me to get up and close it. I made believe I was sleeping soundly, and began to snore loudly. She kept on calling me, but I kept on snoring. Suddenly I began to cry, as if from the sleep: "O mother, leave Anna alone. She too is a mother! Pity her family!"
Anna became silent. I half opened my eyes and looked at her through the open door. A candle was burning on the table near her bed, and I could see that she was frightened, and was listening intently. then I continued, somewhat differently: "I beg of you, mother, is it her fault? Doesn't she feed me? Isn't she a mother too?"
Then I began to cry as if in my sleep. "What?" I asked suddenly, "Anna?! Anna—a Jewess too?!"
Then I noticed that Anna was watching Marusya's bed. I saw she was afraid Marusya might overhear what was not intended for her ears. She put on her night robe, came to my bed, and began in a whisper: "Are you sleeping? Get up, my boy, wake up!"
I did "wake up," and put on a frightened appearance. "What did you cry about?" she asked. "I dreamt something terrible." "What did you dream about" I kept silent. "Tell me, tell me!" she insisted. "I saw my mother in a dream." "Is she alive yet?" I told a lie. I said my mother was long dead. "And what did she tell you?" "She said that . . . ." "Tell me, tell me!" "I cannot repeat that in Russian." "Then say it in Yiddish." I looked with make-believe surprise at Anna. "She said: 'I shall come to Anna at night and choke her, if she doesn't give up abusing you.'" At this Anna turned red. I continued: "And she said also, 'Anna ought to have pity on Jewish children, because she is a Jewess herself.'" . . . .
My scheme worked well. Anna began to treat me in an entirely different way, and my position in the house not only improved, but became the opposite of what it had been. At times, when no one was around, she even spoke Yiddish to me. Apparently she liked to remain alone in the house with me and chat with me. You must know, her position in the village was all but agreeable. She had very few acquaintances; and she would have been better off without any. When she happened to have visitors, a mutual suspicion at once became apparent, in their behavior and their talk. There was much more flattery, much more sweetness of speech than is common among people. One could see that each spoke only to hide her innermost thoughts. Every conversation ended as it began: with gossip about women who were not zealous enough in matters of church attendance. And when it came to that, Anna invariably blushed, simply because she was afraid she might blush. Then, feeling the blood coming to her face, she would try to hide her confusion, and would chatter away ceaselessly, to show how punctual she was herself in church matters. On taking leave, Anna's friends would exchange significant glances, and Anna would have been either too stupid or else too wise not to notice the sting of those sly looks.
As to Peter, he treated Anna fairly well; and when they happened to quarrel, it was mostly her own fault. One night—it was long after I had found out Anna's secret—I happened to be sleepless, and I overheard Anna talking angrily to Peter. She was scolding him for having forgotten to prepare oil for the lamp before the ikon of some saint. It was that saint's day, and Khlopov had either forgotten or neglected it. He was very careless in church matters, and Anna never got tired of taking him to task for it. This time she didn't leave off nagging him, till he lost patience, and said: "Were I really as religious as you want me to be, I should have taken to wife a woman who—well, who is a real Christian herself." Perhaps Peter never meant to insult Anna by reminding her of that which she wished to forget. Or perhaps Peter thought he had offered a valid excuse. But Anna was offended and turned around crying.
The trouble with Anna was that she was very sensitive. That was a trait of hers. When she heard something said about herself, she never was satisfied with the plain meaning of what was said, but tried to give the words every other possible meaning. Every chance remark she happened to overhear she took to be meant for herself. Well, this same sensitiveness one may find in most of the Cantonists. For instance, in the regiment of General Luders, in which I served once, we had many Tatars, some Karaites, and a goodly number of Jews. To all appearances there was no trouble; but let one soldier call another "Antichrist," and every Jew in the regiment would get excited. The Tatars and the Karaites rather liked to call their comrades Antichrist, even if they happened to be Christians. But it was only the Jews whom the word set a-shivering. It is as I tell you—the Jew is painfully sensitive. Well, to cut my story short, Anna did not have a happy time of it. She was all alone, surrounded though she was by many people. She became taciturn in spite of herself. And this is a great misfortune when it happens with womenfolk. Women are naturally great talkers, and you may do them much harm, if you do not give them a chance to talk. So I became her crony as soon as I discovered her secret. Then she tried to make up for the many years of silence by chattering incessantly. In her long talks she often said things she had denied before. Once she told me that she felt a longing to see her relations and townspeople. But the next time she said that she hated them mightily. Very likely she did not hate them. We all dislike that which has caused us pain and harm. So Anna disliked her relations for having caused her remorse, homesickness, and perhaps shame. Once her tongue was loosed, she did not stop until she had poured out the proverbial nine measures given to woman as her share of the ten measures of speech in the world. She spoke Yiddish even in the presence of Marusya and of Jacob, who used to visit me once in a while. By and by Anna began to treat him in a very friendly way. Only Marusya avoided him, and never spoke a word to him. She simply hated him.
Thus in time the house of Anna became something like a Jewish settlement, or rather like some sort of a Klaus, especially when Pater was away from home. We all used to gather there, and talk Yiddish, just as in a Klaus. For under Anna's roof we felt perfectly free. She became a mother to the homeless Cantonists. Even marusya took to jabbering a little Yiddish. Jacob began to feel that the leadership of our little community was passing into the hands of Anna, and he became jealous. He did not see that the very fact that he too was falling under her spell was influencing our community greatly, and that thus he was stamping it with his own character.
Anna liked him more than she did any one of us. Moreover, she respected him. At times it looked as if she were somewhat afraid of him.
Now you must know that at bottom Anna had never deserted her religion. Instead, she carried the burdens of both religions; to the fear of the Jewish hell she seemed to have added the fear of the Christian hell. I suspect that she was still in the habit of reciting her Hebrew prayer before going to sleep. She also believed in dreams. In this respect all women are the same. Of course, she had her dreams, and Jacob thought himself able to interpret them; he used to seek her company for that purpose.
So we all began to feel very much at home in Anna's house.
Once it happened that Peter entered the house at a moment when we were all so much absorbed in our Yiddish conversation that we did not notice his presence. He sat down quietly among us and took part in our talk, smiling in his usual manner. He asked us some questions, and we answered him. Then we asked him something, and he answered us in pure, good Yiddish, as if there were nothing new or surprising about it. At last Marusya awoke, and exclaimed with glad surprise: "Papa, can you speak Yiddish too?" We all shuddered, as if caught stealing. Peter's smile broadened, covering the whole of his face.
"Did you imagine that I do not know it? I wish you could speak it as well as I do."
That made me suspect that Peter might have been himself a convert from Judaism, and I decided to ask Anna bout it. She cleared up my doubts very soon. She told me that Peter had been brought up in an exclusively Jewish town; he had been employed there as a clerk in the Town Hall. As he always had to deal with jews, he finally learned their language. She told me at the same time that Peter rather liked Jews, and that he was a man of more than ordinary ability; otherwise, she said, it would have been very foolish on her part to leave the religion of her father for the sake of Peter.
"What did you say was the name of your native town?" I asked out of sheer curiosity. She named my native town. I felt a shiver go through me. "And what was your father's name?" I asked again, trembling.
"Was he a wine-dealer?"
"Yes; and how do you know it? Are you of the same town?"
I told her my father's name, and we clasped hands in surprise.—
While the old man was telling his tale, the clouds dispersed. I looked upwards: the dark sky spread vaultlike above us studded with stars, some in groups, some far apart. Then I remembered what the Lord had promised to our father Abraham: "And I shall multiply thy seed as the stars in heaven." And I thought I saw in the sky naught but so many groups of Jews: some kept in exile, some confined within the nebulae of the Milky Way. . . . But even then, it seemed to me, there was a strong attraction, a deep sympathy between them all, far apart and scattered though they were. Even so they formed aggregations of shining stars—far apart, yet near. . . .
The wind began to grow cold; we pressed close to one another to keep warm. The old man drew his old coat tightly about him, and continued his story:—
Well, we of our little community threw off the yoke of the old Torah, yet refused to accept the yoke of the new Torah. Nevertheless our lives were far from being barren. Our longing for the things we were forbidden to practise prompted us to invent a good many new usages. For instance, long before we had the freedom of Anna's house, we managed to meet every Saturday to exchange a few words in Yiddish; two or three words were sufficient to satisfy our sense of duty. Those meetings were among the things for the sake of which we were ready to run any risk of discovery. Of course, we dared not recite our Modeh-Ani: our patrons might have overheard us, and that meant a sure flogging. But we practised repeating the prayer mentally, and we always managed to do it with our faces turned in the direction from which we thought we had come, and where our native towns were situated. Jacob had a little piece of cloth, a remnant of an Arba-Kanfos. The Tzitzis had long been torn away, to prevent discovery and avoid punishment; but what was left of it we kept secretly, and we used to kiss it at opportune moments, as if it were a scroll of the Torah.
Then we made a point of abstaining from work at least one hour every Saturday and on the days that were the Jewish holidays according to Jacob's calendar. On the other hand, work was considered obligatory on Sundays and on Christian holidays. Tearing up some papers or starting a fire was thought sufficient.
These and many other usages we invented, slowly, one after another. In time we got into the habit of observing them very punctiliously, even after we had made ourselves at home in Anna's house. But over and above all Jacob never gave up preaching to me that it was wrong on the part of an oppressed Jew to accept favors from a non-Jew. And this he preached without ever noticing that he was himself giving in to temptation when he accepted favors and kindnesses from Anna. As to Marusya, he always found a pretext to separate us whenever he met me in her company. I was very angry with him for that, but I could not tell him so openly. At last it came to such a pass that Marusya lost all patience, and made me the scapegoat. She stopped having anything to do with me.
Now that was a real misfortune as far as I was concerned. For only then did I come to realize how much I was attached to the girl. I felt an utter emptiness in my heart; I began to feel myself a total stranger in the house. When everybody was talking merrily, I kept quiet, as if I were a mourner. I was always looking for Marusya, I was always trying to catch her eye. I hoped that our eyes would meet, that she would at least look at me. But she kept on avoiding me. No, she did not avoid me: she simply did not seem to know that I was in the house. I was exasperated; and when once I came face to face with Jacob, I lost my temper, and berated him roundly, attacking him on his weakest side:
"Is it on me that you are spying? How many favors, if you please, have you accepted yourself from Anna? Perhaps your father gave you a special dispensation in your dreams?"
To all of this Jacob replied very calmly: "First of all, your analogy does not hold, for you and Marusya are both youngsters. And, second, even supposing I were sinning, it is your fault then, too; for it is clearly your duty to warn me. At the same time, you can imagine how much the whole thing grieves me."
Well, after all, I was ready to forgive him his sins, provided he overlooked mine. . . . .
Yes, that happened on a Saturday. We were all standing in line on the drill grounds. I was in the first line, and Jacob was directly behind me in the second line. We were going through the paces of the so-called three-step exercise. It was this way: the soldier had to stretch his left leg forward on a somewhat oblique line, so that the sole of his foot touched the ground without resting on it. That was the first pace, the hardest of all, as we had to stand on one leg, with the other a dead weight. In this position we had to keep standing till the command was given for the second pace. At that moment we had to shift to our left leg, and quickly bend the right leg at the knee-joint at a right angle. Thus we had to stand till the command was given for the third pace, when we had to unbend the right leg and bring it forward. On that day we were kept at the first pace unusually long. My muscles began to twitch, and I felt as if needles were pricking me from under the skin. Suddenly I felt as if I had lost my footing, and was suspended in the air. Then I fell. This was my first mishap on that day. The sergeant made believe that he did not notice it, and I congratulated myself, hoping it would pass unremarked.
The sergeant was busy with the last of our line: somehow he did not like the way he was standing. Just then, in a crazy fit of contrariness, I felt a sudden desire to fulfil my duty of talking a few words of Yiddish on Saturday. I turned my head and whispered to Jacob in Yiddish: "He is going to keep us here the whole day! When shall we have our hour's rest?" At that moment the sergeant passed between the lines, and overheard me speaking Yiddish. O yes, they have sharp ears, those drill-masters. As you know, speaking Yiddish was considered a great breach of discipline, which never passed unpunished. It always meant a whipping. So I had made myself guilty of two offenses. On that day I did not go home empty-handed: I got an order to report the next morning to receive my twenty lashes. I received my order like a soldier, saluted, and seemed cool about it—for the time being. That pleased the sergeant greatly; he was a thorough soldier himself, and heartily hated tenderfeet and cowards. He looked at me approvingly, and said: "Because you have always been a good soldier, I shall make the punishment easier for you. You have the privilege of dividing the number of lashes in two: ten you get to-morrow, and ten you may put off for some other time." That was the customary way of making the punishment easier in the cases when the Cantonist was either too weak to take in the whole number of lashes at once, or was thought to deserve consideration otherwise. A temporary relief it certainly was; but in the end the relief was worse than the punishment itself. Between the first half of the punishment and the other half, life was a burden to the culprit: he could neither eat, nor drink, nor sleep in peace. Every moment he felt as if his back were not his own, that he merely had borrowed it for a while, and sooner or later he would have to stretch himself on the ground, to bear the weight of a rider on his neck and of another on his feet, and have the rods fall on him with a swish: one, two, three. . . .