“Thank goodness he did not ask me about Grushenka,” thought Alyosha, as he left his father's house and turned towards Madame Hohlakov's, “or I might have to tell him of my meeting with Grushenka yesterday.”
Alyosha felt painfully that since yesterday both combatants had renewed their energies, and that their hearts had grown hard again. “Father is spiteful and angry, he's made some plan and will stick to it. And what of Dmitri? He too will be harder than yesterday, he too must be spiteful and angry, and he too, no doubt, has made some plan. Oh, I must succeed in finding him to-day, whatever happens.”
But Alyosha had not long to meditate. An incident occurred on the road, which, though apparently of little consequence, made a great impression on him. Just after he had crossed the square and turned the corner coming out into Mihailovsky Street, which is divided by a small ditch from the High Street (our whole town [pg 192] is intersected by ditches), he saw a group of schoolboys between the ages of nine and twelve, at the bridge. They were going home from school, some with their bags on their shoulders, others with leather satchels slung across them, some in short jackets, others in little overcoats. Some even had those high boots with creases round the ankles, such as little boys spoilt by rich fathers love to wear. The whole group was talking eagerly about something, apparently holding a council. Alyosha had never from his Moscow days been able to pass children without taking notice of them, and although he was particularly fond of children of three or thereabout, he liked schoolboys of ten and eleven too. And so, anxious as he was to-day, he wanted at once to turn aside to talk to them. He looked into their excited rosy faces, and noticed at once that all the boys had stones in their hands. Behind the ditch some thirty paces away, there was another schoolboy standing by a fence. He too had a satchel at his side. He was about ten years old, pale, delicate-looking and with sparkling black eyes. He kept an attentive and anxious watch on the other six, obviously his schoolfellows with whom he had just come out of school, but with whom he had evidently had a feud.
Alyosha went up and, addressing a fair, curly-headed, rosy boy in a black jacket, observed:
“When I used to wear a satchel like yours, I always used to carry it on my left side, so as to have my right hand free, but you've got yours on your right side. So it will be awkward for you to get at it.”
Alyosha had no art or premeditation in beginning with this practical remark. But it is the only way for a grown-up person to get at once into confidential relations with a child, or still more with a group of children. One must begin in a serious, businesslike way so as to be on a perfectly equal footing. Alyosha understood it by instinct.
“But he is left-handed,” another, a fine healthy-looking boy of eleven, answered promptly. All the others stared at Alyosha.
“He even throws stones with his left hand,” observed a third.
At that instant a stone flew into the group, but only just grazed the left-handed boy, though it was well and vigorously thrown by the boy standing the other side of the ditch.
“Give it him, hit him back, Smurov,” they all shouted. But Smurov, the left-handed boy, needed no telling, and at once revenged himself; he threw a stone, but it missed the boy and hit the ground. The boy the other side of the ditch, the pocket of whose coat was visibly bulging with stones, flung another stone at the group; this time it flew straight at Alyosha and hit him painfully on the shoulder.
“He aimed it at you, he meant it for you. You are Karamazov, Karamazov!” the boys shouted, laughing. “Come, all throw at him at once!” and six stones flew at the boy. One struck the boy on the head and he fell down, but at once leapt up and began ferociously returning their fire. Both sides threw stones incessantly. Many of the group had their pockets full too.
“What are you about! Aren't you ashamed? Six against one! Why, you'll kill him,” cried Alyosha.
He ran forward and met the flying stones to screen the solitary boy. Three or four ceased throwing for a minute.
“He began first!” cried a boy in a red shirt in an angry childish voice. “He is a beast, he stabbed Krassotkin in class the other day with a penknife. It bled. Krassotkin wouldn't tell tales, but he must be thrashed.”
“But what for? I suppose you tease him.”
“There, he sent a stone in your back again, he knows you,” cried the children. “It's you he is throwing at now, not us. Come, all of you, at him again, don't miss, Smurov!” and again a fire of stones, and a very vicious one, began. The boy the other side of the ditch was hit in the chest; he screamed, began to cry and ran away uphill towards Mihailovsky Street. They all shouted: “Aha, he is funking, he is running away. Wisp of tow!”
“You don't know what a beast he is, Karamazov, killing is too good for him,” said the boy in the jacket, with flashing eyes. He seemed to be the eldest.
“What's wrong with him?” asked Alyosha, “is he a tell-tale or what?”
The boys looked at one another as though derisively.
“Are you going that way, to Mihailovsky?” the same boy went on. “Catch him up.... You see he's stopped again, he is waiting and looking at you.”
“He is looking at you,” the other boys chimed in.
“You ask him, does he like a disheveled wisp of tow. Do you hear, ask him that!”
There was a general burst of laughter. Alyosha looked at them, and they at him.
“Don't go near him, he'll hurt you,” cried Smurov in a warning voice.
“I shan't ask him about the wisp of tow, for I expect you tease him with that question somehow. But I'll find out from him why you hate him so.”
“Find out then, find out,” cried the boys, laughing.
Alyosha crossed the bridge and walked uphill by the fence, straight towards the boy.
“You'd better look out,” the boys called after him; “he won't be afraid of you. He will stab you in a minute, on the sly, as he did Krassotkin.”
The boy waited for him without budging. Coming up to him, Alyosha saw facing him a child of about nine years old. He was an undersized weakly boy with a thin pale face, with large dark eyes that gazed at him vindictively. He was dressed in a rather shabby old overcoat, which he had monstrously outgrown. His bare arms stuck out beyond his sleeves. There was a large patch on the right knee of his trousers, and in his right boot just at the toe there was a big hole in the leather, carefully blackened with ink. Both the pockets of his great-coat were weighed down with stones. Alyosha stopped two steps in front of him, looking inquiringly at him. The boy, seeing at once from Alyosha's eyes that he wouldn't beat him, became less defiant, and addressed him first.
“I am alone, and there are six of them. I'll beat them all, alone!” he said suddenly, with flashing eyes.
“I think one of the stones must have hurt you badly,” observed Alyosha.
“But I hit Smurov on the head!” cried the boy.
“They told me that you know me, and that you threw a stone at me on purpose,” said Alyosha.
The boy looked darkly at him.
“I don't know you. Do you know me?” Alyosha continued.
“Let me alone!” the boy cried irritably; but he did not move, as [pg 195] though he were expecting something, and again there was a vindictive light in his eyes.
“Very well, I am going,” said Alyosha; “only I don't know you and I don't tease you. They told me how they tease you, but I don't want to tease you. Good-by!”
“Monk in silk trousers!” cried the boy, following Alyosha with the same vindictive and defiant expression, and he threw himself into an attitude of defense, feeling sure that now Alyosha would fall upon him; but Alyosha turned, looked at him, and walked away. He had not gone three steps before the biggest stone the boy had in his pocket hit him a painful blow in the back.
“So you'll hit a man from behind! They tell the truth, then, when they say that you attack on the sly,” said Alyosha, turning round again. This time the boy threw a stone savagely right into Alyosha's face; but Alyosha just had time to guard himself, and the stone struck him on the elbow.
“Aren't you ashamed? What have I done to you?” he cried.
The boy waited in silent defiance, certain that now Alyosha would attack him. Seeing that even now he would not, his rage was like a little wild beast's; he flew at Alyosha himself, and before Alyosha had time to move, the spiteful child had seized his left hand with both of his and bit his middle finger. He fixed his teeth in it and it was ten seconds before he let go. Alyosha cried out with pain and pulled his finger away with all his might. The child let go at last and retreated to his former distance. Alyosha's finger had been badly bitten to the bone, close to the nail; it began to bleed. Alyosha took out his handkerchief and bound it tightly round his injured hand. He was a full minute bandaging it. The boy stood waiting all the time. At last Alyosha raised his gentle eyes and looked at him.
“Very well,” he said, “you see how badly you've bitten me. That's enough, isn't it? Now tell me, what have I done to you?”
The boy stared in amazement.
“Though I don't know you and it's the first time I've seen you,” Alyosha went on with the same serenity, “yet I must have done something to you—you wouldn't have hurt me like this for nothing. So what have I done? How have I wronged you, tell me?”
Instead of answering, the boy broke into a loud tearful wail and [pg 196] ran away. Alyosha walked slowly after him towards Mihailovsky Street, and for a long time he saw the child running in the distance as fast as ever, not turning his head, and no doubt still keeping up his tearful wail. He made up his mind to find him out as soon as he had time, and to solve this mystery. Just now he had not the time.