The Skylark Temperament: A Sketch in Peasant Russia

You would n’t ask a child of six to analyze himself for you. If you did, you very probably would n’t trust his analysis — or would you ? Certainly, all through the years, the traveler in Russia has listened attentively while the peasant described himself. And then, returning to his own country, he has written: ‘The muzhik is a strange, ununderstandable being, thus and so; I know he is, because he told me so himself!’

Headquarters had ordered that we do all we could to encourage wholesome exercise among the Russian soldiery — the fine old Anglo-Saxon idea. The routine of their present military training made no provision for physical development or fitness, not even through the setting-up exercises we know so well.

Seeing at once the value of this suggestion, I cast about for a way to carry it out, trying faithfully to find the one that appealed most to the soldiers themselves.

Their first and most popular idea was boks — the Russian version of the fistic exercise so popular with the soldiery of all the great Allies. But boks was not a success.

I can remember well having to step into the ring to Vasíli after the second victim of his sledge-hammer blows had been dragged out by the heels.

‘Vásya, amiable one,’ I said, ‘how do you think this is the way to play boks? Only watch when the Amerikántsȳ or the Englishmen do it! They don’t try for a knockout every bout. They are content to make a gentlemanly game of it — sparring for points, understand?’

Vasíli’s eyes opened wide with incredulity and surprise.

‘Points! What is it, a point?’ he asked. ‘If one does n’t lay the other out cold, however are we to know who has won?’

So Vasíli and his fellows positively refused to comprehend what ‘points’ meant, and boks — as boks — had to be given up.

Then we bethought ourselves of basket-ball — a ripping idea, Catchpole had said. All one morning we worked, Timoféy and Pável and I, hanging the baskets at either end of our little concert-hall. All through dinner (where I sat at the head of our long board) the talk was of bás-ket-ból, and there was much boasting about what each was going to accomplish in the new sport.

Irína, as Pável had hoped, was duly impressed. And Klávdiya was not wholly unmindful of Timoféy’s protestations. Mefódi, too, caught fire at the idea, and talked in loud tones about ‘centres,’ ‘forwards,’ ‘baskets,’ and how he would conjure with them all. But Ánnushka was busying herself even more loudly with her soup.

Dinner over, nothing would do but an immediate trial of the new court. No work would go on, no other interests be taken up, until this was out of our systems.

A few soldiers — Americans familiar with the game — made up an opposing team. Mefódi captained ours. Timoféy and Pável, holding out with characteristic tenacity, succeeded in establishing themselves as our two forwards — feeling that in this position there was greater scope for the display of their prowess. Being easily taller than any of the others, I asked to be made centre, secretly feeling that one could best command the entire court from this strategic point.

But, to our regret, bás-ket-ból also was not much of a success.

‘Team-work? What for a thing is this, this team-work?’ gasped Pável, hot and panting, in the midst of a lifeand-death struggle with Timoféy for possession of the ball. And while they struggled, a deft Michigander snapped it up, and he and an American mate who did understand ‘this team-work,’ zig-zagged it safely down the hall, well out of the hands of Mefódi and me, and straight into our basket.

And a few moments later, prrreeewant the referee’s whistle as Mefódi came lumbering down the floor, the ball hugged tightly to his breast.

‘Listen, Fód’ka!’ I explained. ‘It’s forbidden to run with the ball. Soon as you get it, you must pass it to another team-mate nearer the basket.’

‘Yes, and I’ll pass it!' retorted Mefódi. ‘This little age I am waiting to get a hand on the ball. It’s needful to throw a basket!’

‘But there stands Timoféy, look. He ’ll throw the basket,’ I protested.

‘Timoféy, yes, and Timoféy,’ said Mefédi. ‘Tfu! What does he know how to throw a basket?’

And even while we talked, the Americans threw another basket. And, soon after, another. And yet another.

But to us never a one. Good job Irína and Klávdiya could n’t see us now! Good job they were way off in the kitchen behind the swinging door!

Was it imagination, or did I really note a flagging interest, as a score continued to roll up against us? In the words of the Michigander, they were ‘showing us up’ — us Russians!

Then suddenly things took an unexpected turn.

I was trotting back to position, my back to my mates, when khlop! the stout ball caught me square in the nape of the neck, and I went sprawling full length on the floor.

‘Ay, yay!' yelled á

‘Look-look!’ cried Mefódi. And all burst into loud laughter.

Quick as a cat, Timoféy pounced on the retreating ball. Gleefully he clutched it, as its new possibilities were revealed to him. Then he swung round and poised himself on his toes, eyes flashing, nostrils dilated, the ball held high above his head. His mates saw the threatening attitude and started for cover. (If only Klávdiya would come in — if only she could see him now! thought Timoféy.)

‘Ay, Pásha, look alive!’ he shouted.

The ball went flying down the hall and caught Pável cleanly in the pit of the stomach.

Oy!' grunted Pável, collapsing in a heap.

As violent, unexpected gusts of wind, or a loud, unheralded crash of thunder, give notice of a coming storm, so these spontaneous incidents gave ominous warning of a surge of excitement that might sweep my temperamental team quite off its feet — a ’carrying away’ that might end in anything short of homicide. It must be forestalled if humanly possible. The ball must be retrieved at any cost.

So then — a fundamental mistake on my part — I plunged after the ball. Of course, Mefódi, seeing my sudden move, misunderstood: of course, he thought I had the same in mind as Pável or Timoféy. And being much nearer, he got the ball long before I could reach it — and he was swept into the frenzy too.

His eyes flashed, his hair flew back from his low forehead. Swinging the ball high over his head with both arms, he let fly, full at Timoféy — and I was after the ball again!

Timoféy leaped aside, and it crashed into the wall, dislodging a great birch bough from the Whitsuntide decorations. The bough came tumbling to the floor.

A second time I was too late for the ball; for Pável, up again by this time, had pounced upon it and sent it flying back in the other direction.

And so high carnival went on. The Americans, ‘peeved’ at such a perversion of their favorite game, had pulled out entirely, and stood disdainfully watching the remarkable display — Mefódi, Timoféy, and Pável, their eyes wide with excitement, hurling the ball about the room at the top of their strength; and I, panting after, vainly trying to recover it from them.

Bough after bough of the decorations came tumbling down. Chair-rungs snapped in two and clattered out. More than one light of window-glass was splintered on the floor. A thin red stream trickled quite unnoticed from Timoféy’s temple, and Pável’s eye was black and blue. And still the play went on.

Mefódi, not knowing exactly what he did, or where he did it, once more let fly the ball. It went high, far away over the heads of us, straight for the hanging chandelier. Khlop! it crashed into this; the chandelier rocked wildly to and fro, and three kerosene lamps tumbled out and crashed in pieces on the floor — the last three lamps in Páchipolda.

Okh!’ grunted Mefódi. ‘ There once! Now look! ’

‘Fool!’ shouted Timoféy, lunging after the ball to send it back at him.

But this time, praise God, Timoféy was too late! The ball at last was already in my hands, and in another moment, locked safe in the putawayery — the key in my breeches pocket.

And bás-ket-ból, as well, was over

and done for in Pachipolda.

Work was taken up again. I was busy at my desk, Mefódi moving silently but officiously about his duties, which seemed to keep him a long time in my room.

As he passed close by, I reached out and laid a hand gently on his arm.

‘Fód’ka,’ said I. ‘Tell, please! Why such uvlechénie — such a carrying away

— just now?’

‘Uvlechénie?’ said Mefódi. ‘Yes, and was n’t it uvlechéenie?’ And the flood-gates were opened.

‘ Was n’t I telling you we were fools? ’ he wailed. ‘Was n’t I telling you it would come out that way?’ (I could n’t recall any prediction such as this — but then —) ‘ Would n’t you know it would wind up in a carrying away, and glass broken, and chairs broken, and lamps broken, and devil himself only knows what not?’

He dropped abjectly on the bench and buried his shaggy head in his hands.

Suddenly he flung the head up again, a strange, half-defiant look in his small eyes.

‘The Amerikántsȳ, they would n’t do so! Oh, no! With them never any carrying away, never any uvléchenie! And don’t they know this? Are n’t they so proud people?’ My friend revolved disdainfully with his arms. ‘They think they know everything!’ And the shaggy head buried itself in his hands once more.

I sat down on the bench close beside him, and laid a hand caressingly on the bent shoulder.

‘Mefódusha, my friend,’ said I, ‘do you know what?’ And in quiet tones I went on to assure him that we Amerikántsȳ, too, were steeped in wickedness, indulging in vices so black that it taxed my faint imagination to picture them — weaker, more wicked, more willful than ever the dark muzhik could aspire to be!

A grateful light lit up the mild eyes. With this new confidence between us, our friendship was more strongly cemented than ever. Sure, quite sure now, of a simpatícheski ear, Mefódi laid a hand on my shoulder and, seated on the bench together, we descended the shadowy winding path into Inferno.

It was here I learned at first-hand of the tragedy of Russian life; of the fruitless uphill struggle against a cruel climate no other race could have endured; of the hopelessness and discouragement of ignorance; of the relentless oppression of the Imperial police; of the indolence and faithlessness of many of the priesthood — they who should have been to these simple people a source of inspiration and enlightenment.

I too buried my head in my hands, bowed in the presence of a tragedy so stupendous in its magnitude — an intolerable burden patiently borne by a hundred and sixty-odd millions of people.

Mefódi rose and silently slipped out of the room.

I sat on, absorbed in reflection, as what passible soul would not have been? At last — the reward of months of sympathetic interest — I was vouchsafed a glimpse into the true soul of the muzhik — was permitted to stand face to face with the haunting horror of so sad a people.

But what was this, breaking in upon my consciousness? I straightened up and listened.

From beyond the kitchen door came the lively drone of the garmóshka — the accordion; the throaty singing of men; the shrill reedy voices of the girls. Stronger and stronger swelled the music. Louder and louder rose the voices.

But, surely, that was n’t Mefódi’s voice among them?

I went to the door and opened. And there, true enough! perched on a table, his feet on a chair, sat my friend. Caressingly he clutched his beloved garmóshka, swaying his chunky body rhythmically from side to side as he wrung the melody from the breathy bellows. The corners of his eyes wrinkled as he shouted the lines of his song.

By the stove stood Irínushka, one hand on a broad hip, while the other beat time with a great wooden spoon.

‘Úkhar-Kupéts sets the girls in a ring,
Plies them with wi-ine till they frolic and sing.’

So sang Mefódi. And ‘La! La, la, la!’ echoed Irína. And Klávdiya, and Pável, and Timoféy as well, took up the refrain at the top of their lungs.

’Flings up his purse with a jingle of gold,
“Drink! drink awa-ay! pretty maids, young or old.’”

And again Irína took up the loud refrain. Pável whistled screechingly through his teeth; and Timoféy, catching Klávdiya around the substantial waist, whirled her about the floor in the steps that belong to the tune. Even Ánnushka paused in the far doorway as she went about her work, paused to stamp out the measure with her booted heel, smiling a joyous sympathy with the spirit of the moment.

At such an unexpected sight, I was caught breathless with astonishment and incredulity. Could this be the same Mefódi that had poured out his soul?

My sympathies felt a poignant sense of betrayal? And, in an instinctive effort to rally my routed emotions, I fled from the place — sped out across the fields along the broad, placid river, far away from any humanity as strange as this.

As I hurried along in the warm May sunshine, a silvery note, crystal clear, dropped down to me from somewhere out of the blue sky. Taken with its sweetness, I paused and peered up in search of the source.

At last I made it out, a tiny speck that was a lark — climbing, climbing, in wide circles, and singing as he went. Up and up he mounted, trilling louder and louder. And then, even as I watched, hestopped. Stopped and dropped. And what a sight, to one who did not know of the skylark’s strange habit! The little creature fell straight and swift as a stone from so great a height, down and down until one foresaw him utterly flattened against the hard ground.

But no! Just before that final moment — just before the smash — he caught himself, spread wing, and started circling upward once more, singing gayly as he climbed.

‘Now look!’ I thought to myself. ‘See what! How is n’t this Mefódi exactly like a skylark?’