|THE WHITE POODLE
From the compilation
“The Garnet Bracelet and Other Stories”
FOREIGN LANGUAGES PUBLISHING HOUSE
Translated from the Russian by Stepan Apresyan
THE WHITE POODLE
They were strolling players making their way along narrow mountain paths from one summer resort to another, on the south coast of the Crimea. Usually they were preceded by Arto—a white poodle with a lion cut— who trotted along with his long pink tongue lolling out on one side. When he came to a cross-road he would stop and look back questioningly, wagging his tail. By certain signs that he alone knew, he would unerringly pick the right way and go on at a run, his ears flapping gaily. Behind the dog came Sergei, a boy of twelve, who carried under his left arm a rolled-up rug for acrobatics, and in his right hand a dirty little cage with a goldfinch, trained to pull out of a box coloured slips of paper telling the future. Old Martin Lodizhkin shamblingly brought up the rear, a hurdy-gurdy on his crooked back.
The hurdy-gurdy was an old one; it gave out croaking, coughing sounds, having undergone innumerable repairs during its long life. It played two tunes: a dreary German waltz by Launer and a gallop from "Journey to China," both of which had been in vogue some thirty or forty years ago and were now completely forgotten. There were two treacherous pipes in it. One of them, the treble, did not work at all and as soon as its turn came the music seemed to stutter, limp and stumble. In the other pipe, which played a low note, the valve did not close at once; having begun to boom, it would go on, drowning or jumbling up the other sounds, until it suddenly decided to break it off. The old man was well aware of these shortcomings, and he sometimes remarked jokingly, but with a shade of hidden sadness:
"Well, it can't be helped. It's an ancient instrument, with a cold. When I start it people say, 'Pah, what a nasty thing!' But the pieces used to be nice ones, and fashionable too, only the gentry of today have no admiration for my music. What they want is 'The Geisha,' 'Under the Double-Headed Eagle,' the waltz from The Bird-Seller.' Then there are those pipes. I took the instrument to a repair shop, but they wouldn't tackle the job. 'You've got to put in new pipes,' they told me. 'And you'd do better still to sell this old wheezer to some museum as a relic.' Oh, well! It's fed you and me so far, hasn't it, Sergei, and let's hope it will serve us some more."
The old man was as fond of the hurdy-gurdy as you can be of a living thing that is close to you, or perhaps even related to you. He had got used to it during the long years of his hard wanderer's life, and had come to see it as something animate, almost rational. Once in a while, as he spent the night at a dingy inn, the hurdy-gurdy, which usually stood on the floor beside him, would all of a sudden give out a feeble sound, sad, lonely and trembling as an old man's sigh. Then Lodizhkin would stroke its carved side and whisper tenderly, "Life isn't easy, is it, my friend? Don't give in."
He was as fond of the poodle and the boy, who went with him on his eternal wanderings, as of the hurdy-gurdy, or perhaps a little more. He had "hired" the boy five years before from a hard-drinking widowed shoemaker, whom he had undertaken to pay two rubles a month. But soon the shoemaker died, leaving Sergei tied to the old man by a sincere affection, and by everyday interests.
The path ran along the high, steep shore, winding in the shade of ancient olive-trees. The sea, glimpsed occasionally between the trees, seemed to rise in a calm, powerful wall as it stretched away, and through the pattern of silvery-green foliage its colour showed even bluer and deeper. Cicadas were chirping shrilly everywhere— in the grass, in the cornel shrubs and wild briers, in the vineyards and trees; the air was quivering with their resonant, monotonous clamour. It was a sultry, windless day, and the hot earth was scorching to the feet.
Sergei, who was walking ahead of the old man as usual, stopped and waited for him.
"What is it, Sergei?" asked the old man.
"It's so hot, Grandad Lodizhkin, I just can't stand it! How about a dip?"
With a habitual movement the old man adjusted the hurdy-gurdy on his back and mopped the sweat off his face with his sleeve.
"Nothing could be better," he said with a sigh and a longing glance at the cool blue of the sea. "But the trouble is we'd feel even worse afterwards. A doctor's assistant I know told me sea-salt makes you flabby."
"Perhaps it isn't true," Sergei remarked doubtfully.
"Not true! Why should he have lied to me? He's a serious man, doesn't drink, has a little house in Sevastopol. Besides, there's no way down to the sea here. Wait till we get to Miskhor, and then we'll wash our sinful bodies a bit. It's a good thing to bathe before dinner and then take a nap—a very good thing."
Hearing the murmur of conversation behind him, Arto turned back and came running. His mild blue eyes blinked against the glaring sunlight, and his long, lolling tongue trembled with fast breathing.
"Well, doggie my friend? Warm, is it?" said the old man.
The dog yawned tensely, curling its tongue, shook all over and gave a thin whine.
"Yes, my friend, there's nothing you can do. It says 'in the sweat of thy brow,' " Lodizhkin went on, in edifying tones. "Of course you haven't got a brow but still— All right, now, run along, you've no business hanging about here. You know, Sergei, I must say I like it when it's warm like this. It's just that the instrument's a bit heavy, and if it wasn't for the work I'd lie down somewhere on the grass, in the shade, with my belly up, and stay there. Sunshine's the best thing for old bones."
The path ran downwards and joined a wide, dazzling white road, hard as stone. This was the beginning of an old park, owned by a count, with beautiful villas, flowerbeds, glass-houses and fountains scattered throughout its rich greenery. Lodizhkin knew those places well; every year he made the round of them in the grape-gathering season, when the whole Crimea filled with well-dressed, wealthy and gay people. The colourful luxuriance of southern plants did not move the old man, but there were many things that delighted Sergei, who had never been in those parts before. The magnolias with their hard, glossy leaves that seemed varnished, and their white blossoms the size of large plates; vine arbours hung with heavy clusters of grapes; the huge platans, many centuries old, with their light bark and powerful crowns; tobacco plantations, brooks and waterfalls, and the magnificent fragrant roses that were everywhere—in flowerbeds, on fences, on the walls of the villas—the charm of all this life in bloom kept the boy's simple soul in a state of rapture, so that he was tugging at the old man's sleeve every moment.
"Look at those fish in the founting, Grandad Lodizhkin—they're made of gold! Honest, they are, Grandad, strike me dead if they aren't!" the boy would cry, pressing his face to the iron fence of a garden, with a large fountain in the middle. "And the peaches, Grandad! See how many there are! All on one tree!"
"Go on, you silly boy. Don't stand here gaping!" the old man would reply, pushing him jokingly. "Wait till we get to the town of Novorossiisk and go south again. That's something really worth seeing. There's Sochi, for example, and Adler, and Tuapse, or Sukhum and Batum farther south. Why, you get goggle-eyed looking. Take the palm-tree, for one thing. It's a wonder! It has a shaggy trunk, like felt you'd say, and each leaf is big enough to cover both of us."
"Honest to God?" said Sergei, happily amazed.
"You just wait—you'll see for yourself. There are lots of things! Oranges, for instance, or, say, lemons. You've seen 'em in the shops, haven't you?"
"Well, they grow in the air. Just like that, on a tree, like apples or pears at home. And the people there are quite a queer lot: Turks and Pershings and Circassians, all of them in robes and with daggers. A tough bunch!
And sometimes you see Ethiopians there. I've seen them often in Batum."
"Ethiopians! I know. The ones with horns," said Sergei confidently.
"It's a lie about the horns—they aren't that bad. But they're black as boots, and even shiny. They've got thick and red lips and big white eyes, and woolly hair, like a black sheep's."
"I suppose they're terrible, those Ethiopians?"
"Of course when you aren't used to them you feel a bit scared, but afterwards you see that other people aren't afraid and you get bolder. There are all kinds of things there, my boy. You'll see them for yourself when we get there. The only trouble is fever. It's swamps and rot all around, and besides there's that heat. Those who live there don't mind it because it doesn't do them any harm, but strangers have a hard time. Well, our tongues have been wagging long enough, Sergei. Come on, get in through the wicket. The gentry who live in this villa are very nice people. You only have to ask me—I know!"
But that day brought them no luck. From some places they were driven away the moment they were seen coming; in others, as soon as the hurdy-gurdy sent forth its first wheezy, twanging notes, people waved them away from balconies with annoyed impatience, in still others the servants told them that "the master" hadn't arrived yet. True, they were paid for their performance at two villas, but it was a niggardly sum. Nevertheless, the old man did not scoff at any reward, however small. As he walked back to the road he jingled the coppers contentedly in his pocket.
"Two and five makes seven kopeks," he would say good-humouredly. "That isn't to be sneezed at, either, Sergei. Seven by seven runs up to a half ruble, and that means a square meal for the three of us, and a place to sleep the night, and a swig of vodka for the weak old man Lodizhkin, because of his many ailments. Ah, but the gentry can't understand! They're too stingy to give us twenty kopeks and too proud to give five, so they tell us to get out. Why not give three kopeks rather than nothing? I don't take offence, I don't mind. Why should I?"
Lodizhkin was a modest man and did not grumble even when he was driven away. But that day his habitual placidity was upset by a beautiful, plump, seemingly very kind lady, the mistress of a splendid villa surrounded by a flower garden. She listened attentively to the music and looked with still greater attention at Sergei's acrobatic feats and Arto's tricks. Then she questioned the boy at great length about his age and his name, about where he had learned his gymnastics and whether the old man was related to him, what his parents had been, and so on. Then she told them to wait, and walked into the house.
She did not reappear for ten minutes or perhaps a quarter of an hour, and the longer she kept them waiting the higher soared their vague but bold expectations. The old man even whispered to the boy, shielding his mouth with his hand, "Well, Sergei, we're in luck, believe me: I know, my boy. She'll give us some clothes or shoes. That's quite certain!"
Finally the lady came out again, dropped a small white coin down into the hat Sergei held up, and was gone at once. The coin turned out to be an old ten-kopek piece effaced on both sides and, moreover, with a hole in it. The old man looked at it for a long time with a puzzled air. When they were out on the road and far from the villa, he still held the coin in his palm as if weighing it.
"Yes, that was a fine trick she played on us!" he muttered, stopping all of a sudden. "I can tell you that. And we fools tried so hard to please her. She'd have done better to give us a button or something. You can at least sew it on somewhere. But what am I to do with this trash? The lady probably thinks the old man'll slip it on to somebody at night, on the sly. Oh, no, you're very much mistaken, madam. Old Lodizhkin will not go in for that sort of thing! No, he won't! Here's your precious ten kopeks! Take it!"
Indignantly and proudly he threw away the coin, which dug into the white dust of the road with a faint tinkle.
In this manner the old man, the boy and the dog made the round of all the villas, and were about to go down to the beach. There was one more villa, the last, on their left. It was shut out of sight by a high white wall above which, on the other side, a serried row of dusty slender cypresses rose like so many long, greyish-black spindles. Only through the wide cast-iron gate, with fretwork of an intricate lace-like design, could you see a corner of the fresh silky-green lawn, the rounded flower-beds and, far in the background, a covered walk smothered in a dense growth of vines. In the middle of the lawn stood the gardener, watering the roses with a long hose. He had put his finger to the nozzle, and the sun picked out all the colours of the rainbow in a fountain of spray.
The old man was about to walk past, but peering in at the gate he stopped in wonder.
"Wait a bit, Sergei," he called to the boy. "I think I can see people in there. That's funny. I've passed here so many times but I never saw a soul. Let's hear what it says, Sergei my boy!"
"Friendship Villa. No trespassing," Sergei read the inscription skilfully engraved on one of the gate-posts.
"Friendship, eh?" echoed the old man, who could not read. "That's it! That's just the right word—friendship. We've had bad luck all day, but now we're going to make up for it. I can scent it like a hound. Here, Arto, you son of a dog! Step right in, Sergei. And always ask me—I know!"