Peter

‘WILL the stranger trade? I have garlic. Thou hast bread!’

I looked up from the notes I was writing, puzzled by the voice. For a moment I saw only the incomparable Siberian summer day, and my horse grazing. Then I saw a small boy, looking at me with the unspoiled gaze of a five-year-old.

‘You spoke?’ I asked.

He nodded and waved a list full of wild garlic, freshly gathered. ‘Thou hast bread — I have garlic. Wilt thou trade?’

He wore only a sleeveless shift that by no means came to his knees, and he followed his suggestion by coming round the fire and laying his offering on my knee, where it smelled to high heaven.

I divided my bread fairly. ‘Now that we have broken bread together, is it permitted to ask your name?’ I inquired.

’I am Peter, son of Franz the hishnik. And thou,’ he added, ‘art the Foreigner.’

A hishnik, I knew, was a gold thief, and therefore an outlaw. I passed over his ancestry.

‘Why do you call me “the Foreigner”?’ I asked.

He smiled disarmingly. ‘There is but one,’ he stated, ‘and thou art not of ours. Thou canst read — thou art great and wise; thou wearest boots; thou art a Barin. I have heard talk of such an one.’

A ‘Barin’ is a ‘titled one,’ or, more freely translated, ‘Chief.’

I smiled on my biographer. ’I am that person,’ I admitted, and we formally shook hands.

A year later his father had gone where all good hishniks go, and Peter’s mother was established in my kitchen as cook. I had forgotten Peter’s existence until, one night, he broke the law of the Medes and Persians and walked into my private office uninvited.

He began without unnecessary verbiage: ‘Barin, now that I eat thy bread, I would serve.’

‘And how wilt thou serve?’ I asked.

‘It is thus that I have thought: Thou art wise; thou canst read; but thou canst not talk. The people laugh when thou dost not hear.’ He gulped in his eagerness. ‘Can it not be that I teach thee to talk and thou teach me to read?’ His eyes wandered to my bookshelf and stayed there.

‘I will talk to thy mother—’ I said.

He interrupted me with vigor: ‘And she will certainly beat me for chattering. Nay, Barin, thou must not tell.’

That interview set me thinking, and in due course I established a school. I also established Peter as my valet, to fetch and carry my boots and run errands. He was a most engaging imp, but a liability as a valet. Nevertheless, though I often failed to find my boots, in other respects Peter kept his bargain. He most assiduously taught me Russian — of a highly colloquial variety — and had worn out all the Russian books on the mine by the time he was eight.

In the usual course of events I made several trips a year to Chita, the capital of the province. It was my custom to bring back little gifts to my household, and about this time I brought Peter a pair of boots — not the ordinary, rough shoepacks that the moujiks wear, but a pair of properly fashioned, high-topped Russian boots. I knew, of course, that to a boy in Peter’s position such a gift would redate the calendar. Therefore, with becoming ceremony and in the presence of his mother, I presented them, on Christmas Eve. His delight was dramatic — speechless. He kissed my slippers.

Late that night, as I was about to go to bed, a woebegone Peter, draped only in one of my old shirts, appeared in my doorway, hugging his new boots.

‘Why, Peter,’ I asked, ‘what is the matter? Don’t they fit?’

‘They fit, Barin,’ he answered bravely, ‘but, Barin,— ’ he spoke breathlessly,— ‘I—I—I want books, Barin. Surely for such boots one can buy many books?’

I had difficulty with my Adam’s apple, but, knowing Peter, I took him on his own ground. ‘What kind of books?’ I asked.

Peter’s eyes smouldered. ‘Books about America. About Europe. Like thou dost read. Enough to last a long time. Would the Barin mind?’

We looked at each other across the top of the fateful boots and were silent. Words are sometimes such little things.

‘As you will,’ I said at last. ‘Wrap them up, and at Easter, when I return, I will bring you books.’

The matter was not mentioned again between us.

Three days before Easter I returned again from Chita. All the evening of my return I kept Peter busy until I was clear of interruptions. Then I sent for him.

I was busy at my desk when he came.

‘Peter,’ I said over my shoulder, ‘your parcel is in the corner.’

As the paper began to rustle I turned and watched. Peter was kneeling, struggling with the fastenings. I was utterly forgotten. As the wrappings fell away, the pair of boots again appeared. They were tied somewhat carefully together across the top and were stuffed with paper, as is usual, to keep their shape when traveling.

Peter sat back on his heels, and, in a silence that hurt, I went to him.

Once more we looked at each other, silently, over the boots.

‘Ah, Barin,’ he said, a world of tragedy in his voice, ‘ah, Barin—it was not kind — ’

I leaned over and cut the string. ‘Shake out the paper,’ I ordered, ‘and take them away.’

Peter knelt up, his head very straight. He avoided looking at me. Making it very plain that it was an order, he picked up the first boot to shake out the paper. A cascade of books slid out between his knees. In the silence that ensued I returned to my chair.

When I looked up next, Peter had an armful of books and boots and was standing, facing me.

‘They are all yours, Petrushka,’ I said. ‘And I wish you a happy Easter.’

For the third time we looked at each other across the fateful boots. Peter’s eyes were smouldering with a new kind of emotion.

He let his burden slide to the floor, books and boots alike, then threw up his head, and, with a gesture full of childish dignity, placed the fingertips of his two hands against his forehead, palms inward, in the peasants’ salute of fealty.

’My Barin!’ he said gently. Just that and nothing more. It is said in that way only on rare occasions, to one who is to be a blood brother.

And I answered in kind: ’My Child!' I put my hand on his head, thus completing the rite.

And because Peter’s eyes were full of tears, which threatened to brim over and undo him, I dropped on my heels.

‘Come, Parnishka,’ I said casually, ‘help me pick up these books.’