A Christmas Story by Maxim Gorky(abridged)
translated by Margaret Wettlin
It was six o-clock of a Christmas Eve. The wind was blowing, raising up clouds of snow…The sky was clear and full of stars… The streets were crowded and noisy. Horses pranced down the roadway, people walked along the pavements, some of them hurriedly, others unhurriedly: the former hurried because they had cares and responsibilities and did not have warm coats; the latter dawdled because they did not have cares or responsibilities and did have warm coats, even fur coats.
It was to one of these people who did not have cares but who did have a fur coat, and one with a very handsome collar – it was straight under the feet of this gentleman, who was walking along very properly, that two little balls of rags and tatters rolled, and at the same time two little voices were heard.
“Kind sir…” piped the voice of a little girl.
“Most honoured gentleman…” chimed in the voice of a little boy.
“Could you spare a mite for us poor ‘uns?”
“A kopek for bread. For the holiday,” they ended in chorus.
They were my hero and heroine – little poor children; the boy was named Mishka Pryshch, the girl Katka Ryabaya.
Since the gentleman did not stop, the children kept diving under his feet and crossing in front of him, while Katka, breathless with expectation, whispered: “Just a mite, just a mite,” and Mishka did his best to get in the gentleman’s way.
And when the gentleman had had just about all he could take of this, he threw open his fur coat, pulled out his purse, held it up to his nose and breathed into it snuffily as he extracted a coin, which he thrust into one of the very small and exceedingly dirty hands outstretched to him.
In a trice the two balls of rags had rolled out of the gentleman’s path and come to rest in a gateway, where they stood clinging to each other for a while and glancing silently up and down the street.
“Didn’t see us, the old devil,” whispered the little poor boy in a tone of malicious triumph.
“He’s gone to the izvozchiks round the corner,” explained the girl. “How much did he give, that swell?”
“Ten kopeks,” said Mishka indifferently.
“So how much does that make?”
“Seven tens and seven kopeks.”
“That much? Then we’ll go home soon, won’t we? It’s cold.”
“Plenty of time for that,” said Mishka discouragingly. “See you don’t work too open. If the copper sees you he’ll take you in and give you a clipping. Here comes a barge. Let’s go!”
The barge was a fat woman in a fur cloak, which shows that Mishka was a very naughty boy, very coarse and disrespectful to his elders.
“Kind lady…” he wailed.
“In the name of the Virgin…” put in Katka.
“Pshaw! She couldn’t squeeze out more than three kopeks, the damned old sow,” swore Mishka, and made another dash for the gateway.
The snow still swept up and down the street and the wind grew sharper. The telegraph wires hummed, the snow creaked beneath the runners of the sleighs, and from somewhere down the street came a woman’s ringing laughter.
“Think Aunt Anfisa will get drunk again tonight?” asked Katka, pressing closer to her companion.
“I s’pose so. What’s to keep her from drinking? She will,” replied Mishka definitely.
The wind blew the snow off the roofs and began to whistle a Christmas tune. A doorweight banged. It was followed by the slamming of glass doors, and a deep voice called out:
“Let’s go home,” said Katka.
“The old song,” snapped the long-suffering Mishka. “What makes you want to go home?”
“It’s warm there,” Katka explained briefly.
“Warm!” mocked Mishka. “And when they all get together and make you dance, how will you like that? Or pour vodka down your throat and make you throw up like the last time? Home? Bah!”
And he hunched his shoulders with the air of a man who knows his worth and is certain of the correctness of his opinions. Katka yawned convulsively and collapsed in a corner of the gateway.
“You just keep mum. It it’s cold, grit your teeth and bear it. It’ll pass. You and me’ll get warmed up one of these days. I know, I do. What I want, is – “
And here he broke off to force his lady to evince curiosity as to what he wanted. But she only snuggled down without showing the slightest curiosity. At which Mishka warned her, somewhat anxiously:
“See you don’t go to sleep! You might freeze to death. Hey, Katka!”
“Never fear, I won’t,” said Katka with chattering teeth.
Had it not been for Mishka, Katka might indeed have frozen to death, but that knowing little scamp firmly resolved to prevent her doing anything so trite on Christmas Eve.
“Get up. It’s worse when you’re down. When you’re up you’re bigger, and it’s harder for the cold to get you. Big ones are too much for the cold. Take horses, for instance. They never freeze. People are smaller than horses, and so they’re always freezing. Get up, I tell you. When we’ve got a ruble we’ll call it a day.”
Katka, who was shivering all over, got up.
“It’s – it’s awful cold,” she whispered.
It had, in fact, become extremely cold. Gradually the clouds of snow had grown into dense whirlwinds which here tool the form of pillars, there – of long veils studed with diamonds. They made a pretty sight billowing above street lamps or streaming past the brightly lit shop-windows. They sparkled with a myriad of colours whose sharp cold glitter hurt the eye.
But the beauty of all this did not interest my little hero and heroine.
“Oho!” said Mishka, thrusting his nose out of his hole. “Here comes a whole flock! Up and at them, Katka!”
“Kind gentleman…” wailed the little girl in a tremulous voice as she darted out into the street.
“The least little mite, mister,” pleaded Mishka, and then, shouting: “Run, Katka!”
“The imps! Just let me lay hands on you!” sputtered a tall policeman who suddenly appeared on the pavement.
But they were not to be seen. The two shaggy balls had rolled swiftly out of sight.
“Gone, the little devils,” snorted the policeman, and smiled good-naturedly as he gazed down the street.
The little devils were running and laughing for all they were worth. Katka kept catching her foot in her rags and falling down.
“Heavens, down again!” she would say as she struggled to her feet and looked behind her fearfully, laughing in spite of herself. “Where is he?”
Mishka, holding his sides with laughter, kept lunging into passer-by, an offence which earned him not a few smart fillips.
“Stop it… devil tak you… just look at her! You simpleton, you! Whoop, there she goes again! Was there ever anything so funny?”
Katka’s falls put him in high spirits.
“He’ll never catch us now, we can slow down. He’s not a bad sort. That other one, the one that whistled – once I was running, and all of a sudden – smack! straight into the belly of the night watchman! Whacked my head against his rattle.”
“I remember. Got a lump this big,” and Katka broke into another peal of laughter.
“All right, that’s enough,” Mishka interrupted soverly. “Listen to what I have to say.”
They walked along side by side looking grave and anxious.
“I lied to you back there. That swell slipped me twenty kopeos, not ten. And I liekd before that, too. So that you wouldn’t say it was time to go home. Today’s been a good day. Know how much we took in? A ruble and five kopeks. That’s a lot!”
“Isn’t it,” breathed Katka. “You could almost buy a pair of boots with that much – at the second-hand market.”
“Boots, humph! I’ll steal you a pair of boots. Just wait a bit. I’ve had my eye on a certain pair for some time. Just wait, I’ll snitch them. But here’s what: let’s go to a pub now, shall we?”
“Auntie’ll find out again and give it to us – like she did that other time,” said Katka apprehensively, but her tone belied an inclination to succumb to the temptation of warming herself in a pub.
“Give it to us? No, she won’t. We’ll find a pub, you and me, where not a living soul will know who we are.”
“Will we?” whispered Katka hopefully.
“So here’s what we’ll do: first and foremost we’ll buy half a paund of sausage – eight kopeks; a pound of white bread – five kopeks. That makes thirteen. Then we’ll buy two sweet buns for three kopeks each – six kopeks; that’s nineteen. Then a pot of tea – six; there’s a quarter for you. Think of that! And we’ll have left – “
Mishka faltered and grew silent. Katka gave him a grave, questioning look.
“That’s an awful lot to spend” she ventured mildly.
“Shut up. Wait. It’s not so much. In fact, it’s very little. We’ll eat another eight kopeks’ vorth. Thirty-three in all. If we do it at all, we may as well do it right. It’s Christmas, isn’t it? So we’ll have left… if it’s a quarter of a ruble… eight ten-kopek pieces… and if it’s thirty-three… seven ten-kopek pieces and something left over. See how much? What more can she expect, the damned ald witch! Come along! Make it quick!”
Hand in hand, they went hopping and skipping along the pavement. The snow blew into their eyes and blinded them. now and again a cloud of snow would swoop down upon them and wrap both their little forms in a transparent sheet that they quickly rent in their dash for food and warmth.
“Listen,” gasped katka, out of breath from rushing so, “I don’t care what you think… but if she finds out… I’ll say it was… all your doing. I don’t care. You always run away… and I have to take it… she always catches me… and beats me worse than you. That’s what I’ll say, mind.”
“Go ahead and say it,” nodded Mishka. “If she licks me… I’ll get over it. Go ahead… Say it if you want to.”
He was feeling very gallant, and walked along whistling, his head thrown back. He had a thin face with roguish eyes that usually wore an expression too old for his age; his nose was sharp and slightly curved.
“Here’s the pub. Even two. Which shall it be?”
“The little one. But first to the grocer’s. C’mon!”
When they had bought all the food they wanted, they went into the little pub.
It was full of smoke and steam and a heavy sour smell. Tramps, izvozchiks and soldiers were sitting in the murky shadows, while superbly filthy waiters moved among the tables. Everything in the place seemed to be shouting, singing, and swearing.
Mishka spied an empty table in the corner, nimbly made his way to it, took his coat off, then went to the bar. Casting shy glances about her, Katka, too, began to take off her coat.
“May I have some tea, mister?” said Mishka to the man, beating lightly with his fists on the counter.
“Tea? Quite. Help yourself. And go and fetch some hot water. Mind you don’t break anything. I’ll teach you a thing or two if you do!”
But Mishka had run off for the water.
Two minutes later he was sitting gravely beside his girl, rolling hhimself a cigarette with the air of a drayman who has put in a good day’s work. Katka was looking at him admiringly, awed by the easy grace with which he deported himself in public. For the lifeof her she could not feel at ease amid the deafening roar of the pub, and the least of the fears was that at any moment they would be “thrown out on their ear.” But she would not for the world have had Mishka guess her thoughts, and so she patted down her tow-coloured hair and tried to look about her very simply and unaggectedly. The effort to do so brought floods of colour to her smudged cheeks, and she screwed up her blue eyes to hide her embarrassment. Meanwhile, Mishka instructed her solemnly, trying to imitate the tone and phraseology of a yard porter named Signei, whom he found to be a very impressive person, even if he was a drunk, and had just spent three months in jail for stealing.
“So let’s say, for example, you’r begging. How do you go about begging? It’s no damn good just saying, ‘be so kind, be so kind.’ That’s no way. What you’ve got to do is get under the bloke’s feet – make him afraid he’ll fall over you.”
“I’ll do it,” agreed Katka meekly.
‘Good,” said her companion with an approving nod. “That’s the thing. And then take Aunt Anfisa for example. What’s Aunt Anfise? First of all, she’s a sot. And besides…”
And Mishka announced with commendable frankness just what Aunt Anfise was besides.
Katka nodded her head, fully agreeing with his appraisal of their aunt.
“You don’t obey her, and that’s not right. You ought to say, for instance, ‘I’ll be a good girl, Auntie, I’ll mind what you say…’ In other words, give her a lot of soft soap, and then do what you please. That’s the way.”
Mishka fell silent and scratched his stomach impressively, as Signei always did when he had delivered himself of a speech. Since no other topic presented itself, he gave a little toss of his head and said:
“Well, let’s eat.”
“Let’s,” nodded Katka, who for some time had been eying the bread and sausage hungrily.
And they began to eat their supper in the damp smelly obscurity of the ill-lighted pub, to the accompaniment of bawdy songs and coarse oaths. Both of them are with feeling, with discrimination, with little pauses, like true Epicureans. And if Katka, losing her sense of propriety, greedily took a bite that made her cheek stick out and her eyes pop comically, the staid Mishka would remark indulgently:
“Rushing ahead there, aren’t you, lady?”
At which she would almost choke in her haste to swallow down the unseemly bite…