It is hard to tell this little story,—it is so simple. When I was a youth, I used to gather the children of our street on Sunday mornings during the spring and summer seasons and take them with me to the fields and woods. I took great pleasure in the friendship of these little people, who were as gay as birds.
The children were only too glad to leave the dusty, narrow streets of the city. Their mothers provided them with slices of bread, while I bought them dainties and filled a big bottle with cider, and like a shepherd, walked behind my carefree little lambs, while we passed through the town and the fields on our way to the green forest, beautiful and caressing in its array of Spring.
We always started on our journey early in the morning when the church bells were ushering in the early mass, and we were accompanied by the chimes and the clouds of dust raised by the children’s nimble feet.
In the heat of noon, exhausted with playing, my companions would gather at the edge of the forest, and after that, having eaten their food, the smaller children would lie down and sleep in the shade of hazel and snow-ball trees, while the ten-year-old boys would flock around me and ask me to tell them stories. I would satisfy their desire, chattering as eagerly as the children themselves, and often, in spite of the self-assurance of youth and the ridiculous pride which it takes in the miserable crumbs of worldly wisdom it possesses, I would feel like a twenty-year-old child in a conclave of sages.
Overhead is the blue veil of the spring sky, and before us lies the deep forest, brooding in wise silence. Now and then the wind whispers gently and stirs the fragrant shadows of the forest, and again does the soothing silence caress us with a motherly caress. White clouds are sailing slowly across the azure heavens. Viewed from the earth, heated by the sun, the sky appears cold, and it is strange to see the clouds melt away in the blue. And all around me—little people, dear little people, destined to partake of all the sorrows and all the joys of life.
These were my happy days, my true holidays, and my soul already dusty with the knowledge of life’s evil was bathed and refreshed in the clear-eyed wisdom of child-like thoughts and feelings.
Once, when I was coming out of the city on my way to the fields, accompanied by a crowd of children we met an unknown little Jewish boy. He was barefooted and his shirt was torn; his eyebrows were black, his body slim and his hair grew in curls like that of a little sheep. He was excited and he seemed to have been crying. The lids of his dull-black eyes, swollen and red, contrasted with his face, which, emaciated by starvation, was ghastly pale.
Having found himself face to face with the crowd of children, he stood still in the middle of the road, burrowing his bare feet in the dust, which early in the morning is so deliciously cool. In fear, he half opened the dark lips of his fair mouth,—the next second he leaped right on to the sidewalk.
“Catch him!” the children started to shout gaily and in a chorus. “A Jewish boy! Catch the Jew boy!”
I waited, thinking that he would run away. His thin, big-eyed face was all fear; his lips quivered; he stood there amid the shouts and the mocking laughter. Pressing his shoulders against the fence and hiding his hands behind his back, he stretched and strangely appeared to have grown bigger.
But suddenly he spoke,—very calmly and in a distinct and correct Russian.
“If you wish,—I will show you some tricks.”
I took this offer for a means of self-defence. But the children at once became interested. The larger and coarser boys alone looked with distrust and suspicion on the little Jewish boy. The children of our street were in a state of guerilla warfare with the children of other streets; in addition, they were deeply convinced of their own superiority and were loath to brook the rivalry of other children.
The smaller boys approached the matter more simply.
“Come on, show us,” they shouted.
The handsome, slim boy moved away from the fence, bent his thin body backward, and touching the ground with his hands, he tossed up his feet and remained standing on his arms, shouting:
“Hop! Hop! Hop!”
Then he began to spin in the air, swinging his body lightly and adroitly. Through the holes of his shirt and pants we caught glimpses of the greyish skin of his slim body, of his sharply bulging and angular shoulder-blades, knees and elbows. It seemed to us as if with one more twist of his body his thin bones would crack and break into pieces.
He worked hard until the shirt grew wet with sweat about his shoulders. After each especially daring feat he looked into the children’s faces with an artificial, weary smile, and it was unpleasant to see his dull eyes, grown large with pain. Their strange and unsteady glance was not like that of a child.
The lads encouraged him with loud outcries. Many imitated him, rolling in the dust and shouting for joy, pain and envy. But the joyous minutes were soon over when the boy, bringing his exhibition to an end, looked upon the children with the benevolent smile of a thoroughbred artist and stretching forth his hand said:
“Now give me something.”
We all became silent, until one of the children said:
“Yes,” said the lad.
“Look at him,” said the children.
“For money, we could do those tricks ourselves.”
The audience became hostile toward the artist, and betook itself to the field, ridiculing and insulting him. Of course, none of them had any money. I myself, had only seven kopecks about me. I put two coins in the boy’s dusty palm. He moved them with his finger and with a kindly smile said: “Thank you.”
He went away, and I noticed that his shirt around his back was all in black blotches and was clinging close to his shoulder-blades.
“Hold on, what is it?”
He stopped, turned about, scrutinised me and said distinctly, with the same kindly smile:
“You mean the blotches on my back? That’s from falling off the trapeze. It happened on Easter. My father is still lying in bed, but I am quite well now.”
I lifted his shirt. On his back, running down from his left shoulder to the side, was a wide dark scratch which had now become dried up into a thick crust. While he was exhibiting his tricks the wound broke open in several spots and red blood was now trickling from the openings.
“It doesn’t hurt any more,” said he with a smile. “It doesn’t hurt, it only itches.”
And bravely, as it becomes a hero, he looked in my eyes and went on, speaking like a serious grown-up person:
“You think—I have been doing this for myself? Upon my word—I have not. My father … there is not a crust of bread in the house, and my father is lying badly hurt. So you see, I have to work hard. And to make matters worse, we are Jews, and everybody laughs at us. Good-bye.”
He spoke with a smile, cheerfully and courageously. With a nod of his curly head, he quickly went on, passing by the houses which looked at him with their glass eyes, indifferent and dead.
All this is insignificant and simple, is it not?
Yet many a time in the darkest days of my life I remembered with gratitude the courage and bravery of the little Jewish boy. And now, in these sorrowful days of suffering and bloody outrages which fall upon the grey head of the ancient nation, the creator of Gods and religion,—I think again of the boy, for in him I see the symbol of true manly bravery,—not the pliant patience of slaves, who live by uncertain hopes, but the courage of the strong who are certain of their victory.