One sunny forenoon in early summer Little Mikhail stood at a street corner in a riverside suburb of Petrograd with a basket tray full of fancy cakes of white bread, called Kringels, suspended from his neck. He was a tall slim boy, not more than twelve years old, with pale pinched cheeks, large grey eyes, and clustering chestnut hair. "Kringels, fresh kringels," he kept shouting; "who'll buy, who'll buy?"
Vendors old and young made the narrow streets resound with their cries. Some darted hither and thither jostling passers-by, pausing now and again as they scanned high windows, expecting signals from customers. Others ranged themselves along the footpaths, sitting or standing beside their little stocks of merchandise. "Pots and pans--dishes of all sorts," a woman called from the doorway of an empty house on the steps of which she had arranged her wares. "Green onions and cucumber," shouted a little old man with a harsh voice. "Matches and pipes," droned another, while a ragged girl cried, "Needles and pins, buttons and thread," in a sing-song manner that the barefooted children amused themselves by imitating.
Housewives paused to bargain with the vendors, sometimes arguing with them and sometimes gossiping. The clamour of human voices was occasionally drowned by the rattling of wagons passing to and from the dockyards.
"Kringels, fresh kringels; who'll buy?" shouted Little Mikhail, his shrill voice rising above the confused clamour of the street.
When I was young," remarked a vendor who sold cheap jewellery and brightly-coloured cotton handkerchiefs, "I could shout as lustily as the kringel boy. Now I croak like a black crow by the wayside."
The woman who sold earthenware pots shook her head. "Poor Mikhail!" she sighed, he must keep on shouting like that because Red Koko is watching him."
"Is Red Koko his father?"
"No; the boy is an orphan. Koko's daughter tells me she has cared for him since he was three years old, and he calls her 'Little Mother'."
"He must be some relative, surely," suggested the vendor of jewellery and handkerchiefs.
"No one here knows," the woman said. "He does not resemble either Koko or his daughter. When he came to Petrograd about ten years ago he spoke the White Russian dialect, and knew some foreign words, like the children of rich people. There is some mystery about that boy," the woman added. "Although he is so gentle
and attentive to his work, Red Koko is very harsh to him."
While the vendors were thus discussing Mikhail, he was approached by a little dark woman, carrying a fresh supply of kringels, which she herself had baked.
"That is Red Koko's daughter," explained the seller of earthenware pots and plates.
"Kringels, fresh kringels; who'll buy?" the boy kept shouting.
"You look tired, Mikhail," Koko's daughter whispered; "does your head pain you still?"
"Not so much now, little mother," answered the boy. "But I wish it were night-time, so that I might return home. The hours pass very slowly."
"Have you seen my father?" she whispered anxiously. "If I thought he were not near, I would take your place for a time, so that you might lie down and rest yourself."
"He is in Pavlov's vodka shop," the lad answered wearily; "he will return here again before long."
The woman sighed heavily. "He'll take all the money from you, of course, as he always does. Give me a few kopecks, Mikhail, so that I may buy liver for you, else you will get nothing to eat for supper except black bread."
The boy thrust a few coins into her hand, and then, glancing over his shoulder, whispered: "Hasten away, little mother. I see him coming."
The woman drew her shawl over her head and went down a narrow twisting lane, walking quickly. She was soon lost to sight.
In another moment a heavy hand suddenly clutched Mikhail's right arm.
"Why are you not shouting, son of a frog?" asked a gruff voice. Mikhail looked up and beheld the angry face of the man who was known as "Red Koko". He had thick red hair and a red beard, a squat nose, and bleary blue eyes.
"Kringels, fresh kringels; who'll buy?" the lad called nervously.
"Can't you shout louder?" growled Koko, tightening his grip on the boy's arm until he squirmed with pain.
"Kringels, fresh kringels--oh! o------h!" the little fellow wailed.
"Why do you torture the boy so?" exclaimed the woman who sold earthenware. "You are a cruel man, Koko; and some day the police will get you."
Koko took no notice of her remark. "Give me all the money you have made," he said to Mikhail.
The lad counted twenty-three kopecks into Koko's outstretched hand.
"Haven't you more?" growled the man. "You are spending your time here to little purpose. I must keep a closer eye on you. Shout loud and press people to buy. If you don't, I shall thrash you to-night again."
He turned away, swaying unsteadily, while the boy resumed shouting, Kringels, fresh kringels!"
"Does Koko beat you often?" asked the woman who sold earthenware.
"I hide from him when he comes home," answered the boy. "Besides, he is often so drunk that he can't strike one."
"Still, he does manage to beat you sometimes."
"Yes, and heavily, too; he is so strong."
"God will punish him one day for his wickedness," sighed the woman.
"Kringels, fresh kringels; who'll buy?" Mikhail called. Koko was watching him from a distance, smiling grimly and stroking his beard. He was prompted by feelings of revenge to ill-use the boy. "Mikhail's father," he muttered to himself, "used to treat me badly. Several times he had me punished by the justices. At length he compelled me to leave my native village. Little does he think now that I have his son in my power and am able to make him suffer even more than I have suffered."
Koko had been a tenant of a small holding on the estate of Mikhail's father in White Russia. He was an indolent man of evil habits, much addicted to stealing, who had himself to blame for the misfortunes of which he complained. His fellow-villagers disliked him, and had many times pleaded with the land steward to have him put away.
For a few months after having been forced to
leave his native place, Koko lived in Moscow. Then he resolved to go northward to Petrograd, where he hoped to obtain remunerative work at the docks. Before leaving, however, he conceived a wicked plot to avenge himself on Mikhail's father by setting fire to his corn-stacks when the harvest had been gathered in. Accordingly he walked one day towards the village, which lay twenty miles distant from Moscow, and concealed himself in a wood on the bank of a stream which flows into Moskwa river, there to wait until darkness came on.
That evening, as it chanced, Little Mikhail was taken for a walk through the trees by his faithful old nurse, Masha. He had slept heavily during the sultry afternoon, and, the air having grown fresh and cool, he raced about in high glee, making the wood resound with his shouts and laughter. Masha hobbled about and scolded him frequently for running away from her. Suddenly he darted towards the stream, and while trying to find a new hiding-place, so as to tease the old nurse, fell over the bank into a swirling pool. He was at once carried away by the current round a mass of jutting rock which caused the stream to twist abruptly and increase its speed.
Koko was lying on the other side of the rock under a clump of bushes, brooding over his wrongs. He heard the splash of the falling child, and crept out on a ledge to ascertain what had happened. Seeing Little Mikhail floating past, he stretched
out his right hand and lifted him, dripping like a wet sponge, out of the water, thus saving his life. The little fellow had been stunned by the fall and sudden immersion, and was quite unconscious. Koko turned him over to empty his mouth of water, and observing that he began to breathe freely again, laid him down on the soft turf.
Meanwhile Masha had run towards the river bank, and, sliding down the bank, waded towards the pool on which the child's cap still floated, having been caught by the branch of a fallen tree. She advanced boldly until almost beyond her depth, only to discover to her horror that Little Mikhail had vanished. Half-crazed with grief, she left the water, and scrambling up the bank, ran towards her master's house for assistance, uttering cries of distress. On her way she met the child's mother, and falling on her knees, cried out brokenly: "Little Mikhail is in the black pool." Then she swooned and fell prostrate.
Koko's first impulse was to restore the boy to his parents. For a moment he stood with folded arms, gazing at the little inert form stretched out on the turf. But his thoughts returned again to his wrongs, and he remembered with bitterness the empty cottage which his father had built, and the hostility shown him by the landlord, the land steward, and people of the village. "No one has observed what I have done," he muttered. "No one suspects that I am here. I shall carry this child away. His father will mourn the loss of his
only son more deeply than he would the loss of a few stacks of corn."
Smiling a cunning smile, the peasant then stripped off the child's blouse and cast it into the stream, so as to mislead those who would come to search for the body. Then he took Little Mikhail in his arms and hastened towards a deep and unfrequented part of the wood. There he undressed the child, and wrapping him in his own warm sheepskin coat, gathered a few handfuls of twigs and lit a fire, so as to dry the wet clothing.
In time the boy revived and opened his eyes. He stared with mute wonder in the face of the rough peasant, who was nursing him tenderly, and then lisped faintly, "Masha--I want my Masha."
Koko laid the child down near the fire and answered: "I shall carry you to Masha when I have dried your clothes. Do not cry out or the wild beasts will catch you. Just listen to them."
Little Mikhail heard the distant cries of the men and women who were running up and down the banks of the stream searching for his body in the gathering darkness. He began to shake with fear, and lay watching Koko drying his little garments by holding them over the crackling twigs. Ere long he fell asleep. When he awoke morning had dawned. He found himself in a strange room, in which sat Koko and his daughter, drinking tea. Koko had carried him all the way to Moscow under cover of night.
"They think Mikhail is drowned," the peasant told his daughter. "To-morrow we shall set out for Petrograd and take him with us."
"If the police discover what you have done," the young woman said, "you will be sent to Siberia."
"What does it matter where I go now?" growled Koko. "Outside my native village one place is the same as another to me."
"The police would arrest me also," wailed the daughter.
"No one saw me with the child. Besides, have I not saved his life?"
Next day Koko and his daughter set out for Petrograd, taking Little Mikhail with them. The boy's parents believed that he was dead.
Years went past and still Koko kept his secret. "As long as I live," he vowed, "Mikhail must work for me. I don't care what happens to him afterwards."
"Kringels, fresh kringels!" shouted the poor lost lad on that early summer day, while Koko watched him from across the street.
At noon the workers streamed from the docks and made purchases from the vendors. Mikhail sold many kringels during the meal hour, which passed quickly. Then the street emptied itself, and vendors settled down to gossip and snooze along the footpaths. It had grown very warm. Dogs crouched in the shadows of high buildings and snapped lazily at passing flies.
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KOKO AND LITTLE MIKHAIL
Just as a puff of wind sometimes stirs a warm and silent wood and makes the leaves rustle merrily, so was the sleepy street suddenly awakened to animation by the appearance of strangers. The curiosity of the vendors was aroused, and their tongues began to chatter.
"Who are these? Look, do you see them?" said one to another along the footway. "They are coming this way. What can have taken them here?"
Men yawned and rubbed their eyes; women rose up and gathered in little groups, whispering and nodding their heads.
An elderly lady, accompanied by a uniformed nurse, came walking slowly down the street. It was an unusual thing to see such a visitor in that poor quarter; all the grand folks drove in their carriages when they chanced to visit the docks.
The vendors wondered who this lady could be and why she had come near. Although her hair was white as new-fallen snow, she did not seem old. There was a softness and tenderness in her beautiful face which attracted everyone; her eyes were grey and dreamy, and her lips moved constantly as if she were whispering something to herself.
Women curtsied to her as she drew near, and now and again she smiled sweetly in acknowledgment. A stout woman lifted up her little son in her arms, whispering: "See the beautiful lady,
[paragraph continues] Ivanovitch." The child sucked his thumb and looked wonderingly. Pausing for a moment, the lady spoke to the mother in a sad, sweet voice. "May your boy be a blessing to you," she said. "Never let him go near the river. I had once a little boy of mine own, but alas! he was drowned." Tears streamed down her cheeks and she turned away.
"Poor dear lady," whispered a Jewess, "her mind is crazed with her loss."
"The rich have their sorrows as well as the poor," remarked a frail old man.
"Her face is saintly and fair," the stout woman said. "She spoke out of her heart when she prayed that little Ivanovitch would be a blessing to me."
Mikhail saw Koko peering from the doorway of a vodka shop, and resumed shouting: "Kringels, sweet kringels--who'll buy?"
The lady turned towards him with a smile. "I like your face," she said softly. "What beautiful eyes you have! What is your name, little fellow?"
"Mikhail," answered the boy.
"How strange!" the lady exclaimed. "That was the name of my own little boy. Had he lived he would be nearly as old as you are, Mikhail. What is your age?"
"My Mikhail would be twelve too were he alive. You look much older, son of my heart. Why do
you have to sell these kringels in the street? Are your parents very poor?"
"My parents are dead," the boy answered.
"How sad!" sighed the lady. "If you should ever happen to be near Moscow, come to see me at my country house. I will show you where my Little Mikhail was drowned. I cannot yet realize he is dead. Sometimes I see him in my dreams, wandering about the streets of a strange town, weeping while he searches for me. His eyes were large and grey like yours, but he had fairer hair and his cheeks were plump and red. Will you promise to come and see me some day? I'll love you because your name is Mikhail."
"God be merciful to her!" whispered the woman who sold hardware. "Her heart is broken with grief for her son."
"Let us move on, madam," the nurse said softly. "It is time we returned to the carriage."
The lady stroked Mikhail's head, gazing at him through her tears. "Will you sell me some kringels?" she asked. "How much must I pay you for all those on the tray?"
"Fifteen kopecks, madam," answered the boy, who blushed deeply, because the other vendors were watching and listening.
The lady drew a silver rouble from her purse. "Take this, Mikhail," she said, "and eat all the kringels yourself. . . . Now your cheeks are rosy and beautiful. You are more like my lost Mikhail than before. My dear boy was taken away from
me by God, and I have not been happy since. But ah! we shall meet again some day in His good time."
She began to weep bitterly, and allowed the nurse to lead her away from the kringel seller, who was really her own lost son. It was a strange meeting after long years of separation. Nor was it to be wondered at that neither recognized the other.
Koko, who stared with wide eyes through the window of a vodka shop, realized what had taken place. He knew that the strange lady was Mikhail's mother, and feared to venture forth lest she would remember his face, and perhaps ask him uncomfortable questions. Not until she had disappeared did he leave his hiding-place and cross the street.
"What did the lady say to you?" he asked Mikhail in a low, unsteady voice.
The boy drew the silver rouble from his pocket and answered, "She gave me that."
Koko took the coin, and stared at it stupidly as he turned it over in the palm of his right hand.
"But what did she say?" he blurted out, turning his eyes upon the boy, who answered: "She told me I resembled her son who was drowned, and that his name was Mikhail also."
"What has brought her here?" Koko growled. "She dreams"
"What?" exclaimed Koko in a horrified voice.
"She dreams her dead child is wandering about the streets of a strange town," said Mikhail.
The woman who sold hardware had crept near, and heard every word that was spoken. Koko's strange manner aroused her curiosity.
"She dreams, does she?" Koko muttered, tugging his beard.
"Visions come in dreams, and visions are from God," remarked the woman, repeating the saying of a holy man.
Koko glanced at her with startled eyes, and then asked Mikhail: "Did the lady say she would return again?"
Before the boy could answer, the hardware woman spoke, saying: "She thinks Mikhail is like her lost son, and has asked him to go and visit her at her country house, which is near Moscow. Anyone could see that the boy has attracted her. She will certainly return again. Perhaps she wants to adopt him. . . . What makes you afraid, Red Koko?"
The man had turned suddenly very pale, and shook like an aspen leaf. Observing this, the woman grew more bold.
"Whose son is Mikhail?" she asked sharply. "God knows what secret you are hiding in your heart, Red Koko, and He will punish you if you have done wrong. You speak the dialect of White Russia, as does the dear lady who has just gone away. Why are you troubled so much about her? Why------"
Koko made no answer. He turned away abruptly, and went towards the docks with hastening steps.
"When next the lady comes I shall speak to her," said the vendor of hardware to herself as she returned to the door-steps on which she had arranged her wares. "I shall tell her that Koko ill-uses the boy, and that he is afraid of her for some reason or other. Perhaps she knows something about him."
When Mikhail returned home that evening he told Koko's daughter about the lady with the pale, sad face, who had spoken to him regarding her lost child, and presented him with a silver rouble. "Perhaps she will come again, little mother," he sighed as he crouched in a corner, his elbows on his knees and his hands pressed against his aching brow. "Her voice was like sweet music. I felt I had seen her somewhere a long time ago--perhaps I saw her in a dream."
Koko's daughter trembled. She felt certain the strange lady was Mikhail's mother. "Does your head pain you still, Mikhail?" she asked in a low voice.
"Yes, very much," answered the boy. "I feel I cannot eat anything. I will lie down and try to sleep."
"My poor boy, you have wearied yourself to-day. Lie down and sleep a little," Koko's daughter urged him tenderly, with tears in her eyes.
"Do not let your father strike me to-night," Mikhail pleaded, as he stretched himself on a heap of straw which was covered by a ragged blanket.
"Have I not always been kind to you, Mikhail?" Koko's daughter asked in a trembling voice as she drew a rug over him.
"Yes, yes, little mother; always kind."
She kissed his forehead. "You won't forget that. If the great lady comes to take you away, she will make you rich. Promise me you will tell her I have cared for you lovingly ever since you were a little child."
"Had my mother--my real mother--soft eyes like the great lady's?" asked the boy.
"Your mother had indeed beautiful eyes."
"Ah! why did she die?" Mikhail sighed deeply.
"Are you weeping for me, little mother?"
"For you and for myself," answered Koko's daughter. "It will break my heart if you are taken away from me."
"Perhaps the lady will take you also. Who knows?"
His voice had grown faint, and he soon fell asleep. The woman sat beside him weeping, and waiting for her father. But Koko did not return home that night. He had found a hiding-place somewhere near the docks, and waited an opportunity to escape from Petrograd to some distant place where no one would know him.
Next morning Mikhail went to sell kringels as
usual at his accustomed place. He looked paler than usual, and his voice had grown thin and tremulous.
"The kringel boy is unwell," one vendor remarked to another.
"If the lady comes to-day," said the woman who sold hardware, "I shall speak to her about Koko. But where is Koko to-day?"
Mikhail's eyes searched the street for him in vain. "Kringels, fresh kringels," he shouted; "who'll buy, who'll buy?"
"It will be very hot to-day again," growled a heavy man who carried a bale of goods on his shoulders, and stood resting himself against the wall beside a group of vendors.
"To-morrow I'll seek the country highways," a pedlar said with a yawn. "I am weary of the city life, and long to see green woods again. The air is thick here; one could cleave it with a hatchet."
"Ah! she is coming again," exclaimed a stout woman excitedly.
"Who is coming?" another asked.
"The lady who blessed my little Ivanovitch yesterday and spoke to Mikhail, the kringel seller."
Vendors rose up to watch her drawing near, walking slowly beside her nurse. What was going to happen? Would she take Mikhail away with her? Everyone grew excited and curious.
"Where can Red Koko be?" asked one of the men.
"If the lady gives Mikhail another silver rouble," a woman remarked, "Koko will soon make appearance. Rest assured he is not far away."
"What is wrong with Mikhail?" exclaimed a Jewess in a startled voice. "He is ill," the stout woman said, and turned at once to hasten towards the boy, who had suddenly fainted on the foot-path. His face was ashen pale and his chin sank on his breast: the tray tilted sideways and all the kringels were scattered on the ground. A crowd had gathered round him when the lady drew near.
"Alas! madam, Little Mikhail has fainted," the Jewess informed her.
"Stand apart! let him have fresh air," said the nurse as she pressed forward.
"Poor boy! poor boy!" exclaimed the lady in a broken voice. "He has neither mother nor father to care for him."
The woman who sold hardware had taken the fainting boy in her arms, kneeling on the footpath, while the nurse unloosed his shirt. Another woman was sprinkling water from an earthenware pot on his white, pinched face.
"Stand apart!" the nurse repeated. Reluctantly the crowd of vendors drew back.
Mikhail began to revive, and, opening his eyes, saw the face of the sad lady, who was bending over him. He smiled faintly.
"Poor boy! poor boy!" she kept repeating.
[paragraph continues] Dipping her handkerchief in the pot of water, she damped his forehead and cheeks. Then suddenly she uttered an exclamation of surprise.
"Look, look!" she cried, addressing the nurse. "There is a little brown mole above his collar-bone. My Little Mikhail had a mole there also."
She clutched the boy convulsively in her arms. "My Little Mikhail has come to life again," she exclaimed.
"Hush! madam," urged the nurse. "Do not excite yourself. This is but a poor woman's child."
"He is none other than your own child," exclaimed a woman excitedly.
Everyone looked round. It was Koko's daughter who had spoken.
"How do you know?" asked the nurse.
"My father rescued Mikhail from drowning and carried him away. Oh! I am not to blame. I have been kind to the boy, and I love him dearly."
"This is Red Koko's daughter," explained the woman who sold hardware. "She has cared for the boy since he was three years old."
"I remember Red Koko," the lady said. "He was a wicked man."
"Mother--are you indeed my own mother?" asked Mikhail, raising himself up.
"My child, my long-lost child!" sobbed the lady, clasping him in her arms and kissing him again and again.
The nurse, who remained cool and collected in that excited group, whispered to one of the male vendors, requesting him to fetch their carriage, which was waiting in an adjoining street. Then she spoke to Koko's daughter, asking, "Do you know this lady's name?"
"She is Madam Dolgoruk, and her husband is General Vasíli Petróvich Kantemír," that poor young woman answered with agitation. "May God forgive my father for the sin he has committed in stealing Little Mikhail from his parents!"
"The boy must indeed be Madam's lost son. How wonderful!" someone exclaimed.
"Wonders are worked by God every day of our lives," remarked an old man.
"Madam's prayers have been heard and answered," the stout woman said softly as she crossed herself.
In a few minutes the carriage drove up.
"You will come with me, my son, my son," the lady whispered, embracing Mikhail tenderly. She seemed to be in dread lest he might be taken away from her again.
"Let Koko's daughter come also," pleaded the boy.
"Yes, yes," his mother assented. "Whatever you wish shall be done, my own boy, my sweet Mikhail."
Koko's daughter hesitated to enter the carriage. "You had better accompany us," whispered the nurse. "The General will wish to hear what
you have to say. Do not wait until the police come for you."
Pale and trembling, the young woman obeyed, and in another minute the carriage rolled out of the street.
The vendors broke up into little groups, talking with animation over what had taken place.
"What think you?" exclaimed the woman who sold hardware. "The kringel boy is the son of rich parents. He was stolen by Red Koko."
"Where is Red Koko?" asked another vendor.
"He has run away," a little old man asserted.
"The police will find him and he will be sent to Siberia," declared another.
"We shall miss Little Mikhail," said the Jewess. "He had a sweet voice and gentle manners."
"Although Koko used him ill," the stout woman sighed, "God watched over him. He is merciful to all, rich and poor, and in His good time He guided the mother to her lost child."
"Did the lady not say she had seen Mikhail in her dreams?" exclaimed the woman who sold hardware. "And did I not say yesterday that visions come in dreams and visions are from God? So I heard a holy man once declare, and now his words have come true."
Red Koko was never again seen in the riverside suburb. His daughter, however, returned one day to bid farewell to the vendors, and to distribute gifts of money among them from
[paragraph continues] Mikhail's mother. "Mikhail has been very ill," she told them, "and is going south to Moscow to-morrow. His mother has taken me into her service, and I will accompany her and Mikhail to her country house, which is near to my native village."
"She has forgiven you, then," said the woman who sold hardware.
"God has restored her to her right mind again," Koko's daughter made answer, "and her heart is full of forgiveness. She will not even have my father punished."
"And is Mikhail very happy?" asked the stout woman.
"Happy indeed," Koko's daughter sighed. "Had his mother not found him, he would assuredly have died. She has nursed him back to life again."
"When my son Ivanovitch is old enough," declared the stout woman, "he will sell kringels, like Little Mikhail. Never shall I forget the sweet lady who blessed my boy, and her dear son who lived amongst us all these years."