AND so on that frosty, snowy, and windy day in November, Kolya Krassotkin was sitting at home. It was Sunday and there was no school. It had just struck eleven, and he particularly wanted to go out "on very urgent business," but he was left alone in charge of the house, for it so happened that all its elder inmates were absent owing to a sudden and singular event. Madame Krassotkin had let two little rooms, separated from the rest of the house by a passage, to a doctor's wife with her two small children. This lady was the same age as Anna Fyodorovna, and a great friend of hers. Her husband, the doctor, had taken his departure twelve months before, going first to Orenburg and then to Tashkend, and for the last six months she had not heard a word from him. Had it not been for her friendship with Madame Krassotkin, which was some consolation to the forsaken lady, she would certainly have completely dissolved away in tears. And now, to add to her misfortunes, Katerina, her only servant, was suddenly moved the evening before to announce, to her mistress's amazement, that she proposed to bring a child into the world before morning. It seemed almost miraculous to everyone that no one had noticed the probability of it before. The astounded doctor's wife decided to move Katerina while there was still time to an establishment in the town kept by a midwife for such emergencies. As she set great store by her servant, she promptly carried out this plan and remained there looking after her. By the morning all Madame Krassotkin's friendly sympathy and energy were called upon to render assistance and appeal to someone for help in the case.
So both the ladies were absent from home, the Krassotkins' servant, Agafya, had gone out to the market, and Kolya was thus left for a time to protect and look after "the kids," that is, the son and daughter of the doctor's wife, who were left alone. Kolya was not afraid of taking care of the house, besides he had Perezvon, who had been told to lie flat, without moving, under the bench in the hall. Every time Kolya, walking to and fro through the rooms, came into the hall, the dog shook his head and gave two loud and insinuating taps on the floor with his tail, but alas! the whistle did not sound to release him. Kolya looked sternly at the luckless dog, who relapsed again into obedient rigidity. The one thing that troubled Kolya was "the kids." He looked, of course, with the utmost scorn on Katerina's unexpected adventure, but he was very fond of the bereaved "kiddies," and had already taken them a picture-book. Nastya, the elder, a girl of eight, could read, and Kostya, the boy, aged seven, was very fond of being read to by her. Krassotkin could, of course, have provided more diverting entertainment for them. He could have made them stand side by side and played soldiers with them, or sent them hiding all over the house. He had done so more than once before and was not above doing it, so much so that a report once spread at school that Krassotkin played horses with the little lodgers at home, prancing with his head on one side like a trace-horse. But Krassotkin haughtily parried this thrust, pointing out that to play horses with boys of one's own age, boys of thirteen, would certainly be disgraceful "at this date," but that he did it for the sake of "the kids" because he liked them, and no one had a right to call him to account for his feelings. The two "kids" adored him.
But on this occasion he was in no mood for games. He had very important business of his own before him, something almost mysterious. Meanwhile time was passing and Agafya, with whom he could have left the children, would not come back from market. He had several times already crossed the passage, opened the door of the lodgers' room and looked anxiously at "the kids" who were sitting over the book, as he had bidden them. Every time he opened the door they grinned at him, hoping he would come in and would do something delightful and amusing. But Kolya was bothered and did not go in.
At last it struck eleven and he made up his mind, once for all, that if that "damned" Agafya did not come back within ten minutes he should go out without waiting for her, making "the kids" promise, of course, to be brave when he was away, not to be naughty, not to cry from fright. With this idea he put on his wadded winter overcoat with its catskin fur collar, slung his satchel round his shoulder, and, regardless of his mother's constantly reiterated entreaties that he would always put on goloshes in such cold weather, he looked at them contemptuously as he crossed the hall and went out with only his boots on. Perezvon, seeing him in his outdoor clothes, began tapping nervously, yet vigorously, on the floor with his tail. Twitching all over, he even uttered a plaintive whine. But Kolya, seeing his dog's passionate excitement, decided that it was a breach of discipline, kept him for another minute under the bench, and only when he had opened the door into the passage, whistled for him. The dog leapt up like a mad creature and rushed bounding before him rapturously.
Kolya opened the door to peep at "the kids." They were both sitting as before at the table, not reading but warmly disputing about something. The children often argued together about various exciting problems of life, and Nastya, being the elder, always got the best of it. If Kostya did not agree with her, he almost always appealed to Kolya Krassotkin, and his verdict was regarded as infallible by both of them. This time the "kids"' discussion rather interested Krassotkin, and he stood still in the passage to listen. The children saw he was listening and that made them dispute with even greater energy.
"I shall never, never believe," Nastya prattled, "that the old women find babies among the cabbages in the kitchen garden. It's winter now and there are no cabbages, and so the old woman couldn't have taken Katerina a daughter."
Kolya whistled to himself.
"Or perhaps they do bring babies from somewhere, but only to those who are married."
Kostya stared at Nastya and listened, pondering profoundly.
"Nastya, how silly you are!" he said at last, firmly and calmly. "How can Katerina have a baby when she isn't married?"
Nastya was exasperated.
"You know nothing about it," she snapped irritably. "Perhaps she has a husband, only he is in prison, so now she's got a baby."
"But is her husband in prison?" the matter-of-fact Kostya inquired gravely.
"Or, I tell you what," Nastya interrupted impulsively, completely rejecting and forgetting her first hypothesis. "She hasn't a husband, you are right there, but she wants to be married, and so she's been thinking of getting married, and thinking and thinking of it till now she's got it, that is, not a husband but a baby."
"Well, perhaps so," Kostya agreed, entirely vanquished. "But you didn't say so before. So how could I tell?"
"Come, kiddies," said Kolya, stepping into the room. "You're terrible people, I see."
"And Perezvon with you!" grinned Kostya, and began snapping his fingers and calling Perezvon.
"I am in a difficulty, kids," Krassotkin began solemnly, "and you must help me. Agafya must have broken her leg, since she has not turned up till now, that's certain. I must go out. Will you let me go?"
The children looked anxiously at one another. Their smiling faces showed signs of uneasiness, but they did not yet fully grasp what was expected of them.
"You won't be naughty while I am gone? You won't climb on the cupboard and break your legs? You won't be frightened alone and cry?"
A look of profound despondency came into the children's faces.
"And I could show you something as a reward, a little copper cannon which can be fired with real gunpowder."
The children's faces instantly brightened. "Show us the cannon," said Kostya, beaming all over.
Krassotkin put his hand in his satchel, and pulling out a little bronze cannon stood it on the table.
"Ah, you are bound to ask that! Look, it's on wheels." He rolled the toy on along the table. "And it can be fired off, too. It can be loaded with shot and fired off."
"And it could kill anyone?"
"It can kill anyone; you've only got to aim at anybody," and Krassotkin explained where the powder had to be put, where the shot should be rolled in, showing a tiny hole like a touch-hole, and told them that it kicked when it was fired.
The children listened with intense interest. What particularly struck their imagination was that the cannon kicked.
"And have you got any powder?" Nastya inquired.
"Show us the powder, too," she drawled with a smile of entreaty.
Krassotkin dived again into his satchel and pulled out a small flask containing a little real gunpowder. He had some shot, too, in a screw of paper. He even uncorked the flask and shook a little powder into the palm of his hand.
"One has to be careful there's no fire about, or it would blow up and kill us all," Krassotkin warned them sensationally.
The children gazed at the powder with an awe-stricken alarm that only intensified their enjoyment. But Kostya liked the shot better.
"And does the shot burn?" he inquired.
"No, it doesn't."
"Give me a little shot," he asked in an imploring voice.
"I'll give you a little shot; here, take it, but don't show it to your mother till I come back, or she'll be sure to think it's gunpowder, and will die of fright and give you a thrashing."
"Mother never does whip us," Nastya observed at once.
"I know, I only said it to finish the sentence. And don't you ever deceive your mother except just this once, until I come back. And so, kiddies, can I go out? You won't be frightened and cry when I'm gone?"
"We sha-all cry," drawled Kostya, on the verge of tears already.
"We shall cry, we shall be sure to cry," Nastya chimed in with timid haste.
"Oh, children, children, how fraught with peril are your years! There's no help for it, chickens; I shall have to stay with you I don't know how long. And time is passing, time is passing, oogh!"
"Tell Perezvon to pretend to be dead!" Kostya begged.
"There's no help for it, we must have recourse to Perezvon. Ici, Perezvon." And Kolya began giving orders to the dog, who performed all his tricks.
He was a rough-haired dog, of medium size, with a coat of a sort of lilac-grey colour. He was blind in his right eye, and his left ear was torn. He whined and jumped, stood and walked on his hind legs, lay on his back with his paws in the air, rigid as though he were dead. While this last performance was going on, the door opened and Agafya, Madame Krassotkin's servant, a stout woman of forty, marked with small-pox, appeared in the doorway. She had come back from market and had a bag full of provisions in her hand. Holding up the bag of provisions in her left hand she stood still to watch the dog. Though Kolya had been so anxious for her return, he did not cut short the performance, and after keeping Perezvon dead for the usual time, at last he whistled to him. The dog jumped up and began bounding about in his joy at having done his duty.
"Only think, a dog!" Agafya observed sententiously.
"Why are you late, female?" asked Krassotkin sternly.
"Female, indeed! Go on with you, you brat."
"Yes, a brat. What is it to you if I'm late; if I'm late, you may be sure I have good reason," muttered Agafya, busying herself about the stove, without a trace of anger or displeasure in her voice. She seemed quite pleased, in fact, to enjoy a skirmish with her merry young master.
"Listen, you frivolous young woman," Krassotkin began, getting up from the sofa, "can you swear by all you hold sacred in the world and something else besides, that you will watch vigilantly over the kids in my absence? I am going out."
"And what am I going to swear for?" laughed Agafya. "I shall look after them without that."
"No, you must swear on your eternal salvation. Else I shan't go."
"Well, don't then. What does it matter to me? It's cold out; stay at home."
"Kids," Kolya turned to the children, "this woman will stay with you till I come back or till your mother comes, for she ought to have been back long ago. She will give you some lunch, too. You'll give them something, Agafya, won't you?"
"That I can do."
"Good-bye, chickens, I go with my heart at rest. And you, granny," he added gravely, in an undertone, as he passed Agafya, "I hope you'll spare their tender years and not tell them any of your old woman's nonsense about Katerina. Ici, Perezvon!"
"Get along with you!" retorted Agafya, really angry this time. "Ridiculous boy! You want a whipping for saying such things, that's what you want!"