The Mother of Stasya

IT was during the campaign of Warsaw that we had the news. There appeared in an obscure pacifist sheet, which had somehow slipped in from Russia, a paragraph which told of the death of a young Polish lieutenant, Stanislav Ivanoff, who had been shot by his commander for refusing to lead his men into battle. The incident was worthy of note, the newspaper went on to say, because Ivanoff had refused, not so much through the fear of being killed, as through the fear of killing.

Mother’s eyes narrowed as she read. ‘Ivanoff — ’ she repeated thoughtfully; ‘Stanislav Ivanoff—Stasya— Do you think it could be?’

‘Not Stasya! Surely not our Stasya!’

And, even as I denied it, my mind went back over a score of years and countless miles, back to our early years on the edge of the forest which fringes the Black Sea, and I knew that there could be no doubt. It is an almost impossible combination of names — Stanislav Ivanoff. And, besides, it was logical, so brutally logical, this end, for him.


Stasya was the boy the tip of whose finger we sliced off one day with the corn-chopper which we had been forbidden to touch.

Up to that day there had been no joy for us in Stasya’s visits. We found it hard to forgive him for being what he was instead of what we had expected him to be; and we had had the right to expect much from the boy who lived on the most wonderful spot in all the world. Our own place was delightful enough, holding, as it did, the centre of a wooded crescent which sloped sharply down to the sea; but at each end of the curving slope a dizzy cliff jutted out over the sea itself, and one of these cliffs belonged to Stasya’s father, the black-bearded and silent and appalling Ivanoff, who sometimes came to take his tea with us.

It must have been much like the deck of a giant’s ship, that cliff, when Stasya turned his back upon the land; it must have rocked gloriously to the beat of the waves on stormy nights. Through its base went the railroad tunnel, so that, many times each day, Stasya stood straight over the rushing train, and, when it had passed, the smoke crept up to him from both sides at once. And, as if that were not enough, there was the cross which topped the summit of the rise behind the house.

Crosses were not unknown to us — we had one of our own, a thick and clumsy affair which marked the forest grave of our favorite dog Rudkó; it was our secret, shared only by Ashim, our oldest Turk, who had helped us at our task, dubiously enough, his Mohammedan soul rebelling against the injustice to the dog. But there was nothing dreadful about Rudkó’s cross. We knew that, after a season of rain, it would rot at the base and fall over into the fern and be forgotten. It had not grown out of the top of the cliff, it did not stand — straight and slender and black — against the dawn, it did not reach desperately up into the sky. And it did not make us afraid at twilight.

We knew, of course, for chance reports had reached us — snatches of the cliff’s history, vague bits which conjured vistas of an entrancing world. We had heard that Ivanoff’s parents had been killed on that cliff in the dim days before the Turkish War; that Ivanoff himself had renounced fame as an engineer and the promise of a fortune because — and we accepted it literally — he could not breathe air which did not smell of our sea; that, for a time, his wife, the loveliest person of all the earth, had lived there with him. Of her we knew from Ashim, who once had worked for Ivanoff.

' Like a little kitten she was,’ he would tell us when, in the solemn month of the Ramazan, we sat with him on the hilltop and helped him with his long vigil for the first star whose coming broke the daily fast of the faithful; ‘like a little lamb, soft and helpless. All day she sang when first they came, and it was good at that time to work for the bearded one; he was like a happy sultan, with laughter enough for all who might come near. But she did not sing long, and after a time her eyes were always red, and the bearded one swore horribly at us as we worked. Very soon she died, and then he buried her body and his laugh together in one grave and built that cross over them both. So I went away in search of a glad master. Perhaps I should have stayed.’

‘Ashim! A star!’

Heads thrown back, fingers pointing frantically, we waited until his slower eyes had picked the faint twinkle from the transparent sky — until, with a sigh, he closed his yellow teeth on his crust of corn-bread, then trotted away, eagerly building his last story into another wild and wholly satisfying tale. And in these tales, the reckless, the heroic, the impossible deeds were always performed by Stasya, the mysterious boy who had never known his mother and who lived beside the grave of his father’s laugh.

And, with the image of that father before us, it was not hard to create the image of the son. Not so tall he was as the elder Ivanoff, perhaps, but quite as fierce; denied the father’s heavy beard, but richly blessed with his hard eyes and fixed frown, with the bitter mouth which never smiled, the voice which rumbled deep within his body, the thick hands which bent a horseshoe as if it were of tin. We knew that, he, too, stooped from the shoulders when he walked, and dragged his huge feet as though forever following the plough; we knew that he, too, rushed in between fighting dogs and tore them apart by twisting their collars till they gasped for air. We used to talk without end of seeing him some time, of calling a greeting to him, of hearing his gruff voice answering. He was a rare and an alluring child, the Stasya of our dreams.

The real Stasya, when one day he came to us, proved a very slim, very blond little boy, incredibly fragile, incredibly gentle, incredibly shy. He held the hand of his Polish governess and smiled a beseeching smile.

‘Go and play!’ said Ivanoff.

But Stasya did not know how to play. We stared at him in helpless amazement, and through our outraged minds went the thought of the treasures we had stored against his coming; the two-edged Turkish knife, the pirates’ swords, the bleached bone of a murdered child, —we could not show it to a grown-up lest it be ruthlessly linked with a sheep or dog, — the knotted club which the sea had given us and which, beyond the shadow of a doubt, had drifted from the hand of an Australian blackfellow, following the tortuous course which we had often traced for it upon our globe. We thought of these, and glared at Stasya, and Stasya smiled His pitiful smile and held more tightly to the hand of Mademoiselle.

He came very often after that, and we might have been kinder had he come alone. We had no love for Mademoiselle; for, instead of surrendering her charge into our keeping when she came, and retreating behind a book, she made us all her temporary charges, and her unending admonitions, delivered in stiff, roundabout Russian, ring in my ears to this day.

‘Let the biggest one descend from the tree,’ she would shout, her bony finger following her words, — she never did learn our names, — ‘ lest he scratch his knees and tear his stockings! The one in the blue blouse has eaten enough wild strawberries! The small infants must not walk to the house unattended, the large dogs will harm them! Let the girl accompany them; it is not the affair of a girl anyway — the building of a fort!’

And, since scratched knees and torn stockings were not worth anybody’s mentioning; since one could never eat enough wild strawberries; since the large dogs would have killed any one who tried to harm the ‘ small infants ’; and since the girl resented her sex sufficiently without being reminded of its limitations, Stasya’s Polish governess became — so brother Fedik put it — a person one must needs despise, but could not stoop to hate. And because Stasya obeyed her, and because we held him traitor to the cliff and the tunnel and the cross, we despised him also and dubbed him kissél, — which translates itself into custard, — and our games when he was with us narrowed down to the one of trying to kidnap him from Mademoiselle.

And on the day of the corn-chopper we had succeeded. From the steep meadow below the deserted house we watched Mademoiselle’s pink dress darting wildly in and out among the shrubbery, and our triumph must have gone to our heads. For we fell upon the forbidden machine and sent its wheels spinning, shouting to each other in Turkish which, we felt, offset Stasya’s French and Polish combined. And because we were very gay, and because he felt sadly out of it, and because he wanted to play with us, Stasya put out a very bold finger and touched a revolving disk.

The next instant, the wheels of the corn-chopper still whirring behind us, we were racing back to the house and to father, calling to Stasya to keep his hand high in the air as he ran. Past the grinning Turks we went, past Mademoiselle, who shrieked, through the house, and to the ‘stand-up’ desk in the library. Father looked down coolly — he was often thus disturbed; so often that he had converted the desk-drawer into a first-aid box and was wont to give thanks to the far-seeing Providence which, in his youth, had led him to a doctor’s diploma. Without a word he lifted Stasya to the couch, his big, deft hands went swiftly about the task, and we were entirely forgotten. But when the bandage had been brought down across the back of Stasya’s hand and tied around the thin wrist, when Stasya’s white mouth had relaxed a little, father turned a very stern face upon the rest of us.


We shifted and swallowed and said nothing. And in the heavy silence Stasya’s quavering voice sounded thin and uncertain and ridiculously inadequate: —

‘It was not the corn-chopper! I was playing with Fedik’s knife!’

We heard it with scorn, we who knew that it was useless to lie to father and knew little of the lie which winks at truth — so little that we did not understand why father turned quickly back to Stasya, why his stern eyes took on the smiling look we loved, why he bowed so gravely his acknowledgment of the clumsy fib. We did not understand, quite, why we were not punished or why the corn-chopper was not locked away. But we knew that we could never touch it again, and we knew that Stasya was not a kissél. And, very earnestly now, we seized upon the task of teaching him to play with us.

It was easier after Ivanoff caught Mademoiselle lifting Stasya from a limb to which we had boosted him, for she never again came without a book; but now Ivanoff himself took her place, which bothered us — it is hard to slay giants before a grown-up who stands with his arms crossed on his breast, looks on with his hard eyes, and neither smiles nor says a word. Yet Stasya learned a little. He could skip fairly well, and he made a first-class merchant. Stick-in-a-hole fared worse; he confessed his fear of the stick’s sharpened ends. In our pirate games he was always the priest who buried the dead and had no part in either the killing or the dying, which left us dreadfully short-handed for real work, when, as lawless Georgians, we held up a stage, and he came — a distant relative under a white flag — to bring ransom for the captives. And once, — and on that day Ivanoff left us abruptly, — he delighted me by taking my place in the wigwam where I had been sulkily awaiting the return of my scalp-hunting braves.

So it went for several months, until one afternoon, in the Straits of Gibraltar, we scuttled a ship laden with Spanish gold. On that day we had decided that we could no longer be bothered with buryings, and Stasya, his chin quivering but his hand tight upon his wooden cutlass, went readily enough into attack. It was then that we heard a sound which startled us. High on the bank above us Ivanoff was laughing — and our battle grew more furious as we heard it. We were having a beautiful time of it when, suddenly and without warning, in the middle of our merriest assault, Ivanoff jumped down on the pebbles of the beach, strode forward and said jerkily, —

‘Stasya, come home!’

Then, all in the space of a second, he had torn the cutlass from Stasya’s fingers, swung it furiously above his head, — even then we gasped with envy at the sweep of it, — let it fly far out into the sea, and dragged the bewildered Stasya up the bank and out of sight.

We pondered it at length, and quite in vain, as we sat barefoot in the hot sand waiting for our shoes and stockings to dry, our eyes on the misty horizon where the little white rabbits were leaping from the waves to warn the sailors of the coming storm. We had evidently done something to Stasya, — bumped him or knocked him over, — and, out of the blackness of his heart, Ivanoff had thrown away our best cutlass and had gone off to tell father. Very soberly we walked home through the dusk.

But no one was angry in the warm, candle-lighted house. Stasya and Mademoiselle had gone, and Ivanoff was staying to supper, though he did not pretend to eat. Outside, the wind was rising — the too-warm day was bringing its own swift doom. When it was really whistling under the eaves, the forest began its deep, unbroken humming, and, ever so faintly, the sea stirred in reply. By morning, far as eye could see, it would be a dark mass of tumbling waves, and we laughed at each other in joyous anticipation as we clambered — feet and all — upon the wide Turkish tahta and begged father to take down his ’cello, while Ivanoff pushed his armchair close up to the fire and turned his back on us. Now and then, in a pause of the music, he rose and came to the samovar for another glass of tea, and presently he began to take wane in it.

All too soon mother’s eyebrows lifted in their bedtime sign. Yet bedtime had its compensation, for a fairy good to children had had a hand in the building of our house. Sister’s tiny room was far in the wing, the two babies slept with mother, but to us four ‘middlers’ had fallen the nursery, whose door into the living-room was close beside the fireplace. And, on company nights, this door, in the shadow of the mantel, could be left open a crack with no one the wiser for it.

Even then it did not seem strange that Ivanoff should talk as he talked; for when we said good-night to him, he had forgotten the tea and was taking his wine straight. There was the storm, there were the candles and the fire; father’s hands were as deft with the bow and strings as they were with bandages, and the ’cello and Russian melodies were made one for the other.

I cannot say just now how much I heard and understood that night, and how much I learned from father when I questioned him in after years; but I like to think that I remember the very tone of Ivanoff’s voice as it came to us through the unlatched door and that he used the very words — sharp, carelessly chosen words, crowded together in curt sentences — which now I use. A moment only we were out of sight before his question rose above the first bar of a plaintive lullaby.

‘What do you think of my boy?’

The bow squeaked painfully on a high note and the lullaby broke off abruptly.

‘Stasya is ill, Ivan Ivanovich’ — it was as if father had long held the answer ready. ‘This country demands a rugged body to begin with and the climate is not good for your boy. The malaria —’

Ivanoff snorted.

‘With you it is always malaria! Do you know that, in Batum, they call you the malarian; that they say — and they laugh at you for it — that you give quinine to your cows!’

‘Also they beg me to open a dairy when they do not beg me to resume my practice,’ father rejoined mildly. ‘But as for Stasya, he grows more thin and white from week to week. If it is not the climate, what is it?’

‘I think I shall tell you,’ said Ivanoff; ‘and when I have told it, you will remember that my mother was a peasant; you will shrug your shoulders over the superstitions of the illiterate, and you will laugh. And I shall be more alone than before, for I have enjoyed it, coming here to tea with you. Nevertheless, I think I shall tell you.’

But he did not at once begin. There came to us the sound of a bottle uncorked, and the unsteady pouring of a drink, with its tinkle of thin glass against thick.


‘It goes so far back, to the day on which, from the sea, my father saw my cliff. He was in government service, running down smugglers, and had ventured out of his territory, and that one glimpse of that cliff ordered all his later life and mine. For he dropped his work, dropped the woman he was to have married, and married a peasant girl who would not be afraid of the future he was choosing. You, who know this life as it is to-day, can imagine what it was in those days, when all this was still Turkish soil and when — so histories tell us — there was not a Russian here. Yet my father held that cliff for many years. Mad? So they said, they who had never seen our sea at evening turning from blue to gray.

‘My first memory is of the sunset path across the water. I swam before I was quite steady on my feet. I tracked boars across the snow, and rode a vicious little horse up and down these mountains, and sailed my own boat when I was little older than Stasya. I could spend happy days playing with my dogs and the tamed gulls on the beach. I used to lie awake on nights of storm, and feel the waves against the cliff with a terror that was three fourths joy. I knew no other life. I wanted no other life. And they took me away from it all, from my gulls and my forest and my mountains, from the sea without which I had never lived a day, and sent me into the chill and the loneliness of the north, to a boarding-school in St. Petersburg.

‘Perhaps they were right. I was an only child, the son of a nobleman, and I had turned out like my mother, rough and thick-set and uncouth. I had to be polished up somehow, and the grief would pass, they said; all children sob like that.

‘ Have you ever awakened from hearing the forest humming as it hums tonight; from hearing the rising waves rustling upon the pebbles, to find yourself in a half-lighted dormitory? If you have, you will believe me when I say that I should have died, taken poison or thrown myself from a window, were it not for the thought that, if I lived, if I waited long enough, I could come back. I did not even go home for my summers — traveling was too difficult here. So I spent those summers in planning the life which some day would be mine, on this cliff, with a son who would have all that I had missed. I was only a boy myself. But I knew that my own youth was lost, and knew that I could find it again only if I saw my son living the life which should have been mine from the start. A poor sort of pastime for a growing child, these fancies, but they were all that I had.

‘Then chaos came, just as I was finishing my course. Both my parents were killed by Turks — which was to have been expected, I suppose. I should have grieved for them. But my sorrow was all for the cliff to which they had held no claim. And my chance for happiness now hung on the chance of another Turkish war. On that chance I chose my profession, — for I had little money, — and I worked in the classroom with a fierceness which worried even those who instructed me. When, years later, the war did come, I was a rising young engineer; and very soon after it had given this coast to Russia, I came here for a day and bought the cliff which had always been mine.

‘I stood, that day, on the outermost point of it, over the breakers of the beach. A storm had just passed — to-morrow will be another such day. The wind still blew and, all about me, the gulls rose and fell on outstretched wings. I was penniless, and I knew that my real life still lay at the end of a long wait. But the deed to the place was crushed in my fist, and I shouted my triumph to the waves and heard them shouting back.

‘ There is nothing phenomenal in my success after that. I had had good training, big things were being built all over Russia, and my desire for money was little short of insane. From Yalta to Archangel I worked, from Riga to Vladivostok, year upon year, and every new ruble which went into the bank was to me another day, which, some time, I should spend above my sea. I hated my work, hated it inexpressibly, but I was buying my future with it, and I was ready to pay a big price. And at last, — I was no longer young, — there came the day on which I started on the journey which would bring me here for all time. You know in part, — for I have seen your face when you watch the twilight come from out our ravines and go creeping up to the crimson peaks, — you know, in part, what that returning was to me.’

And suddenly Ivanoff fell silent, for so long that I thought he would speak no more. And his next words came unwillingly, as if he were wishing that his story had ended there.

‘ I stopped in Warsaw, — there was a conference of engineers — my last. You know the Polish. Cold they are and reserved and calculating, as correct as the English, more over-mannered than the French. They laugh at us and they hate us; lazy they call us, and crude. And I was the crudest of them all — my schooling had not rubbed away my mother’s heritage. But my word was worth something then, also my good-will, so one of the engineers took me to his house to dinner and I met his youngest daughter there.

‘They call love blind. But I saw. I saw that I was on the verge of my life’s greatest folly, and the knowledge made that folly the sweeter at the time. Perhaps I gloried in the fight I fought to claim her. Perhaps I had visions of taking her from the glittering life about her, from the impeccable puppets with whom she danced and chatted, and letting this country make a simple and normal woman of her. I don’t know. I saw that her boots were of the thickness of gloves, and I did not forget the paths which led up to the cliff. I knew that hands which could feel as hers felt against my lips would drop helplessly before the lightest task. I knew that I ought to be marrying a woman of my own sort, strong of body and not overfine, a woman who would love me because she knew no other kind of man, and not because I was a novelty among the men she knew. The cups which I broke should have warned me, were I heeding warnings — bits of translucent china they were, crumpling up like eggshells in my hands, for my hands were used to a thick glass at tea-time.

She, too, should have taken heed. But she only rang for a servant to take away the broken fragments, called me her awkward Bruin, kissed my scalded fingers and laughed — there never has been anything on earth like that laugh of hers.

‘So I brought her here, just another bit of fragile china where iron and steel should have been. In the middle of the night sometimes, after a very sad evening, I can still see her smiling as she smiled that day, her teeth on her lower lip, when we walked for the first time together up the path to our cliff and streamers of wild blackberry tore at her arms and hair.

‘Of course we were gay for a time — picnicking she called it. It was fun to build the new house, to plan the garden; fun to read together through the long summer afternoons. I was in a heaven of happiness. And then, — it was when the first storm of autumn was gathering, — one evening she came to me and asked, simply, like a child, “ When are we going home? ”

‘Do you see it all there, in that question, all the horror of the next year? She did not leave me — the Roman Catholics are even more unbending than we; she did not quarrel, she did not even complain, much. She simply grew afraid. Afraid of the howl of jackals and the screech of owls, yet more afraid still of the silence, afraid of the Turks and Kurds who worked on the place and worshiped her for an angel, afraid of the forest, afraid of the wind, terrified by the sea.

‘I tried to reason with her; I too was afraid, I told her, and I spoke the truth. When I am alone in the forest after a snowstorm, with everything white and still, I am so afraid that I would let a boar charge me rather than dare break the silence with my gun. When the sky on the horizon grows murky as it did to-day, with the little white rabbits cresting the far waves, and the air gone suddenly motionless and stifling, I am so afraid that my mouth goes dry.

‘I told her all this, but I only frightened her the more. There were the gulls — I saw her, time after time, sitting in the big window to watch them sweeping up on the wind over the edge of the cliff. She seemed to like them. So I told her more about them, told her what they really were, — which every one knows who has ever seen them following a ship, — the souls of sailors drowned at sea. I thought to please her. But she only shuddered. And she never again sat in that window to watch them sailing past. And on restless nights, when the sea roared under the lash of the wind — oh, my God!

‘At the end of that winter I begged her to go back to her people. She would have gone, I think, did she not know that a child was coming. Which made everything more hopeless still. For she could not bear the thought of bringing a daughter into this wild life; and I should have chosen to remain childless rather than have a son of mine grow soft-bodied and soft-souled in the city which she loved. For we had shared too many secrets, that son and I, and we had very splendid years to live together.

‘ It was then that we gave to each other the solemn pledges which were to bind us once and for all time. If a daughter came to us, I was to give up all this and go back, back to my profession and the life I hated. But if it. was a boy, — and how I hoped for it! — then it would be Caucasus forever. It seemed fair enough to me — I should have lived up to my part had Stasya been a girl. But she failed me utterly. She stayed. But she would not live. I don’t think I was hard; I let her send for Mademoiselle, and I said nothing when she gave to my son that heathenish name of the Poles. Ivan he should have been, like myself, like my father and my father’s father. She should have been content. But she was unreasonable, — women are, you know, — and she died. And that was not all! ’

Again came the sound of thin glass touched shakily to thick. Father stirred uneasily, his chair creaked in the silence.

‘ She pleaded with me when she was dying, to send Stasya to Warsaw, to give him to her sister. I promised it — one does not deny a death-bed plea. But I had no thought of keeping that promise. They talk of mother-love! But I wonder if a woman ever knows, quite, what a son can mean to a man who remembers his own lonely boyhood. Stasya stayed with me. And then, from her grave she reached out and laid a curse upon him.’

In my bed, suddenly, I regretted the door we had not closed. Something awful was going on in the next room, something which could not be stayed, like the storm which was making me shiver for all the blankets over me.

‘I know that, to yourself, you are laughing. Laughing and thinking of the folk tales which fill a peasant child’s life. But Stasya was a perfect baby. I can still feel the first grip of his fist on my finger. There was no hint in him of these wrists no bigger than my thumbs, of the neck which I can encompass with one hand — until she died. She had wanted a girl who would free her from this. So she took all manliness from Stasya, gave him a begging smile, and made him, too, afraid. Hour after hour he sits silently, with his books and his pictures and his crayons, in some corner of the house which has no window opening on either forest or sea, and every day he is a little more listless than on the day before. Sometimes he plays with dolls. Dolls don’t hurt him, he says. His toys are neatly piled, his hands are clean. All this I could stand. But, in the fullness of her revenge, she put into my boy’s heart a fear of me. Stasya cringes when I touch him. Surely she sees it now — the beauty of the place as I see it; surely she understands now why I could not go away. I buried her here that, with her new vision, she might see. Yet she will not lift the curse. No Russian soul could do a thing such as this!

‘For a time I thought that Stasya would change. When I came to know your young cut-throats, I brought him here. If he could be made into a boy, could be taught to romp, to laugh, to fight, your vandals alone could do it. I ordered Mademoiselle to keep away. I wanted him to be scratched and bumped and battered. I wanted him to cry until he learned to fight instead. I watched them playing day after day. And all the sorrow which had been mine was as nothing to the torture of these playtimes. Yet on some days I was hopeful. There was the evening on which he talked to me of bandits! To have him always shrink at sight of me, to have him tremble when I spoke to him, and then, one evening, to have him come and stand between my knees, his hand on my arm, and talk, with shining eyes, of bandits! That night I sobbed myself to sleep like a hysterical schoolgirl. I bought him a dagger next day — walked to Batum because I could not wait for the train. It was a real one, silver-hilted. Your Fedik would go through fire to claim it. And Stasya cried out with terror at sight of it, and ran and hid from me! The coward! ’

‘Not a coward! Anything but a coward!’ Father’s words were sharp, and I knew of what he was thinking. ‘Ivan Ivanovich,’ he went on, hurriedly, lest he be interrupted, ‘why don’t you drop your fairy tales? Why don’t you get a first-class nurse for Stasya, why don’t you take him into a higher altitude, away from our swamps? If you give him mountain air, if you watch his diet —’

‘Diet?’ and Ivanoff cursed. ‘I am telling you of the thing which burns me night and day, and only the doctor in you is listening! If you had seen what I saw this afternoon —

‘They were looting a sinking ship. Your Fedik was in command; I’d cast away my soul for such a son! My own fists went tight, I was so afraid that they could not get all the treasure before the waves took the hull away. There was the waterlogged old rowboat and the pebbles which filled the bags, but I swear I saw the sinking galleon and heard the clinking of the gold doubloons. And Stasya! Never had I seen him so. Hair tousled, shoes drenched, the cutlass swinging in his hand — once he swore and, at the word, I forgave his mother everything. Already I saw him, square-shouldered and reckless, playing wild games and climbing trees; heard him laughing and shouting through my house, slamming doors as he went. Already I was teaching him to shoot, to swim, to row, to sail. And then, just then, he bumped into Fedik, head on and Fedik’s fault. He should have knocked him down, — or tried to, — he was a pirate fighting for his loot. But he stopped still, dead still, his cutlass hanging, the begging smile back on his lips. “Pardon,” he said, “’pardon.” And, man, he clicked his heels! Her cousins used to click their heels just so, —and how I loathed them for it! — when they bowed among the gilt-legged chairs of her father’s house. But no one had taught Stasya. I questioned Mademoiselle. She was pleased: it’s in the blood, she said. But man-made things such as that do not get into the blood. It is the dead mother over him. And I am helpless, helpless.’

He was pacing the floor now. I could hear his feet when he came to the space between the rugs. And his voice wras very tired.

‘So, I have made my decision. It came to me — the thought which I had driven from me a thousand times — as he stood bowing there, ankle-deep in water, the heels of his soaked shoes close together. One cannot win a fight against the dead. I shall take them to Odessa, him and Mademoiselle, and put them on a Warsaw train. It is queer, after the longings for this country, that the only wish which is left me is the wish that I too could go with them. I should hate it as of old for myself, and, for Stasya, I should die a new death each day. But I could see him. And even that I cannot do. She will be kinder if he is away from me. For, when he is gone, I shall begin my prayer to her, an endless prayer, for the lifting of the curse. And his aunt will give him everything — everything that goes with gilt chairs and pretty speeches and cups which break in the hands of a man! You have more wine?’

‘But how,’ said father after a time, ‘how will you live without him?’

Ivanoff laughed unhappily.

‘It is better than building another cross on my cliff.’

He went away soon after that; or it may be that I fell asleep. The last words which I heard that night seemed, just then, of no especial moment.

‘One condition shall I impose upon her, the aunt. Stasya shall go into the army. We shall see whether even the curse of a dead mother can keep him from fighting there.’


We awoke, next morning, to a brandnew world, a world of dazzling sunshine, of shreds of white clouds tearing across the sky, of a glistening forest still dripping with rain, of a gray-green sea gone mad. The dogs whined impatiently under our windows; in the kitchen Ali the Kurd was imploring the good hakím to find some means whereby that sea could be held from cutting into the field which he had planted to corn.

Shaking with the thrill of all that lay before us, our fingers fumbled over buttons and straps. To swing on the branches of uprooted chestnut trees, to count the tiles blown from the house and barn, to race to where the pebbly beach was wide enough for quick retreat and snatch at the delightful wreckage before the breakers caught it back, to stand and shake our heads with Ali at the foam-tipped tongues which reached over the bank and far into the soft earth, mercilessly crumbling row after row of young green shoots — that morning held no minute for either the future or the past. It was only when, with the sun high overhead, we were going home, walking backward lest we lose sight of the tumbling sea, that we looked at the cross, — black and very still against the flying clouds, — and, all in a flash, remembered Ivanoff’s story.

We talked it over excitedly, — we had dropped asleep at different points of it, — but even then there remained much that was neither clear nor convincing, and we went to sister with it: she was thirteen and knew everything. But, as usual, sister was very busy deciding whether to devote her life to the uplifting of the poor or to the breaking of a prince’s heart, and, as usual, we got nothing at all from her. And soon another problem was added to our everlengthening list.

Father had taken us to Batum next day, and we were returning in the same car with Ivanoff. I should not have dared address him, so formidable did his profile show against the window, but — bold with the boldness of the favorite — Fedik ran gayly after him when we had jumped down at our halfstation.

Zdravstvuitye! ’ he called.

Ivanoff turned and saw him, saw father, turned again, and walked away with great uneven strides.

‘Father!’ Fedik whispered, aghast; ‘what is it? Is he angry with you?’

‘Very angry’ — father’s voice was strangely quiet. ‘You see, my son, he has told his secret to me. Some day, perhaps, I shall tell you.’

So Stasya came no more to play with us, and, because he had miraculously regained all the prestige which our dreams once gave to him, we missed him unbelievably. Yet on the morning on which he was to leave us, Ivanoff’s Turk came to ask us to run down to the railroad in time for the early train.

With Stasya glad and excited, with the radiant Mademoiselle calling to the one in the torn trousers to come and kiss her, with Ivanoff’s face turned away from us, it should not have been a sad occasion, to us who still measured sorrow by the attending tears. Yet sad it was, and final, and very much like death — the departure of the little boy who was going away because we could not make a vandal of him. We were glad when the train crept from out the tunnel and we had done with shaking Stasya’s limp hand, glad when the three had climbed aboard the rear platform and the train puffed heavily away.

Stasya and Mademoiselle disappeared in the car, but Ivanoff stood at the railing, his eyes raised to his cliff, and, as he looked, he slowly bared his head. And we knew that he had begun his endless prayer.