by Maxim Gorky
Translated by Margaret Wettlin
( Photo by Maxim Slugin )
“Just a mite of a girl she was, stranger.”
Every time I recall this phrase, two pairs of old and feeble eyes smile at me through the years – smile with a soft and tender smile full of love and compassion; and I hear two cracked voices impressing on me in identical tones that she was “just a mite of a girl.”
And I am made happy and hopeful by this remembrance, the best of all those relating to those ten months I spent tramping the winding toads of this my native land – a land so vast and sorrowful.
On my way from Zadonsk to Voronezh I overtook two pilgrims, an old man and an woman. Both of them seemed to be over a hundred years old, so slowly and haltingly did they walk, so painfully did they lift their feet out of the scorching dust of the road. There was an illusive something in their dress and their faces that led one to assume they had come a long way.
“All the way on foot from Tobolskaya Gubernia, with God’s help,” said the old man in confirmation of my assumption.
As we walked along, the old woman looked at me with kindly eyes that had once been blue and added with a sigh and a benign smile:
“All the way from the X Factory in the village of Lysaya, my old man and me.”
“Aren’t you very tired?”
“Not very. We can still make our way, still crawl on, by the grace of God.”
“Did you make a vow to come, or is it just an old-age pilgrimage?”
“We made a vow, stranger. We made a vow to the saints of the Kiev and the Solovki monasteries. A vow,” repeated the old man, and then, turning to his companion: “Come mother, let’s sit down and ease our bones a bit.”
“Let’s,” said she.
And so we sat down in the shade of an old willow growing at the side of the road. The day was hot, the sky cloudless; before and behind us wound the road into the heathazy distance. It was a quite lonely spot. On either side of the road stretched fields of sickly rye.
“They’ve sucked the earth dry,” said the old man, handing me a few stalks he had plucked.
We talked about the earth and about the cruel dependence of the peasant on its charity. The old woman sighed as she listened to us, and from time to time she would contribute a wise and knowing word.
“If she was alive, how she would strain her poor muscles in a field like that,” said the old woman suddenly, glancing round at the rows of stunted, shrivelled rye and the bald spots in the field where it did not grow at all.
“Ah, yes, she would have worn herself out,” said the old man, shaking his head.
There was a pause.
“Who are you talking about?” I asked/
The old man smiled good-naturedly.
“About a certain little lass,” he said.
“She was quartered on us. One of the gentlefolk,” sighed the old woman.
And then they both looked at me, and as if by mutual consent said in unison,slowly and plaintively:
“Such a mite of a girl she was!”
The odd way in which they said it went to my heart; the words sounded almost like a last rite intoned by these two faltering voices. And suddenly the old man and woman began to talk so quickly that they fairly took the words out of each other’s mouths and kept me, who was sittng between them, turning my head from one to the other.
“A gendarme brought her to our village and turned her over to the elders. ‘Quarter her on someone,’ he said – ”
“In other words, find her a home,” explained the old man.
“And they sent her to us.”
“You should have seen her – all red and shivering with cold.”
“Such a mite of a girl.”
“It made us cry to see her – ”
“Lord, thinks us, to have sent such a one to such a place!”
“For what reason? For what offence?”
“It’s from these parts she came – ”
“The west, that is – ”
“We put her up on the stove-bunk first – ”
“Ours if a big stove and a warm one,” sighed the old woman.
“And then we gave her to eat.”
“How she laughed!”
“She had shining black eyes, like a mouse’s – ”
“She was like a mouse herself, so round and smooth.”
“When she felt better she began to cry. ‘Thank you, dear,” she said.”
“And then how she did set the house on end!”
“How she did turn things upside down!” laughed the old man gleefully, screwing up his eyes.
“Went bouncing like a ball about our hut – here, there, everywhere, putting this in order, putting that in order. ‘The swills,’ says she, “are to go out to the pigs.’ And she pickes up the swill-tub herself, and then she slips, and plop! in go her arms up to the shoulder. My, oh my! What a sight!”
And both of them laughed till they coughed and had to wipe the tears from their eyes.
“And then the pigs – ”
“Kissed them right on the snout!”
” ‘Out with the pigs, too!’ says she. ‘The hut’s no place for pigs!’ ”
“For a whole week she made order – ”
“Worked both of us to a sweat – ”
“Laughing and shouting and stamping her little feet – ”
“And then all of a sudden going quiet and solemn – ”
“As if she was going to die – ”
“Bursting into tears and crying as if her heart would break. I’d fuss about her, wondering what could be the matter. Such a strange thing. And I’d cry myself, cry without knowing why. And I’d put my arms about her and there we’d be, both of us crying our eyes out – ”
“As was only natural. After all, she was little more than a child – ”
“And us all alone. One son in the army, the other in the gold-fields – ”
“And her only seventeen years old – ”
“Seventeen! No one would give her more than twelve!”
“Come now, that’s stretching it a point, father. Twelve’s stretchhing it.”
“And would you give her more? Would you, now?”
“Why, she was a ripe little piece. As for her being so little, is that to be held against her?”
“And am I holding it against her? Tut, tut!”
“You’re not,” conceded the old woman good-naturedly.
Their quarrel over, they both grew silent.
“And what happend after that?” I asked.
“After that? Why, nothing, stranger,” sighed the old man.
“She died. Died of the fire-fever,” and two tears stole down the old woman’s wrikled cheeks.
“She died, stranger; only lived with us two years. Everybody in the village knew her. The village, did I say? Why, lots more knew her. She had learning and would sit in council with the elders. Sometimes she spoke sharp, but nobody minded. A clever one.”
“Ah, but it was her heart that counted. She had the heart of an angel. There was room in her heart for all our troubles, and she took them all to herself. She was a lady like any other from the town, with a velvet jacket and ribbons and shoes, and she read books and all that, but how she did understand us peasants! She knew all there was to know about us. ‘How did you learn it, dear?’ “It’s all written in the books,’ she would say. Fancy that! But why should she have cared? She ought to have got married and been a lady, and instead they sent her here, and – she died.”
“It was funny to see her teaching everybody. Such a tiny little thing, and teaching everybody so serious: you mustn’t do this, you mustn’t do that – ”
“Oh, she had learning, indeed she did! And how she worried about everything, about everybody! If someone was sick, off she went to cure him; if someone was – ”
“Her mind was wandering when she died; she kept saying, ‘Mama, Mama,’ – so plaintive-like. We sent for the priest, thinking he might bring her back to us. But she didn’t wait for him, the darling; she passed away.”
Tears streamed down the old woman’s face, and a feeling of beatitude came over me, as if these tears were being shed for me.
“The whole village gathered at our house, crowded into the yard, into the roadway, saying ‘What? Is it possible?’ They loved her so.”
“And where else could such a lass be found?” sighed the old man.
“All the people gave her burial. And at Shrovetide her forty days were over, and it came to us: why should we not go on a pilgrimage to pray for her soul? And the neighbours, too, said why not indeed? Go, they said. You are free, with no work-bonds to hold you. Perhaps your prayers will be added to her account. And so we went.”
“You mean you have done this for her?” I asked.
“For her; for that blessed child. The dear Lord may hear our prayers, sinners though we be, and absolve her of sin. In the first week of Lent we set out, on a Thursday it was – ”
“For her!” I repeated.
“For her, stranger,” said the old man.
I wanted to hear them say again and again that it was just to pray for the soul of this girl they had come these thousands of versts. It struck me as being too wonderful to believe. And so anxious was I to be convinced that it was only “for her,” the little lass with the black eyes, that they had done this marvellous thing, that I suggested all sorts of other possible motives. But to my enormous satisfaction they convinced me there was no other.
“And have you really come all this way on foot?”
“Oh, dear no! Sometimes we ride. Ride for a day, then walk for a day. Labouring along, little by little. We’re too old to go the whole way on foot. God sees how old we are. It would be different if it was her feet we walked on.”
And once more they interrupted each other in theri eagerness to talk about her, a young girl whome fate had cast on such a distant shore, so far from home and mother, to die of the “fire-fever.”
( Photo by Aleksandr Kulikov )