A. S. Makarenko Reference Archive

The Road to Life
Volume 1


In the spring a fresh disaster came upon us--spotted typhus. The first to sicken was Kostya Vetkovsky.

Ekaterina Grigoryevna, who had once studied at a medical institute, attended us on those rare occasions when we could neither dispense with a doctor nor quite make up our minds to call one in. She had become the colony's specialist on the itch, and was skilled at first aid in cases of cuts, burns and bruises, and, during the winter, owing to the imperfections of our footwear, frostbitten toes. It seemed as if these were the only ills our inmates condescended to indulge in--they showed not the slightest inclination to have dealings with doctors and their remedies.

I always felt the greatest respect for my charges for this very aversion to medicine, and learned a great deal from them in this regard myself. It became quite a natural thing with us to take no notice of a temperature of 100, and we paraded our powers of endurance in front of one another. As a matter of fact this attitude was more or less forced upon us, since doctors visited us with extreme reluctance.

And so when Kostya fell ill, and his temperature went up to almost 102, it was regarded as something new in the experience of the colony. Kostya was put to bed, and we did all we could for him. In the evenings his friends gathered round his bed, and since he was popular a regular crowd surrounded him every evening. Not wishing to deprive Kostya of company or upset the boys, we also spent the evening hours at the patient's bedside.

Three days later Ekaterina Grigoryevna, in great alarm, communicated her suspicions to me--it looked very like spotted typhus. I forbade the other boys to go near his bed, but it would have been quite impossible to isolate him in any effective fashion--we had nowhere else but the dormitories to work and sit in of an evening.

When, in another day or two, Kostya got worse, he was wrapped in the wadded quilt which served him as a blanket, and placed in the phaeton. I drove into town with him.

About forty persons were walking about, lying down, and groaning in the hospital waiting room. The doctor was long in coming. It was obvious that the hospital staff was in a chronic state of exhaustion, and that very little good was to be expected from placing a patient in the hospital. At last the doctor came. He raised our Kostya's shirt with a weary gesture, saying wearily, with much senile grunting, to the feldsher [Medical assistant--Tr.] waiting with uplifted pencil: "Spotted fever. Send him to the fever huts."

In a field just outside the town stood about a score of wooden huts, left over from the war. I wandered long among nurses, patients, and attendants, the latter bearing stretchers covered with sheets. The patient was supposed to be received by the feldsher on duty, but no one knew where he was, or wanted to look for him. At last, losing patience, I fastened upon the nearest nurse and made free with the words "a disgrace" "inhuman!", "outrageous!" My fury was not without effect--Kostya was undressed, and led away.

On my return to the colony I learned that Zadorov, Osadchy, and Belukhin all had high temperatures. Zadorov, it is true, was still up and about, and I came upon him at the moment when he was arguing with Ekaterina Grigoryevna, who was trying to persuade him to go to bed.

"How funny you are!" he was saying. "Why should I go to bed? I'll just go to the smithy--Sofron will cure me in a moment."

"How will Sofron cure you? Why do you talk such nonsense?"

"The way he cures himself--vodka, pepper, salt, naphtol, and a dash of cart grease."

Zadorov burst out into his usual expressive, frank laughter.

"See how you've spoilt them, Anton Semyonovich!" said Ekaterina Grigoryevna. "He'll let Sofron cure him! Get along with you, and go to bed!"

Zadorov fairly exuded heat, and it was obvious that he could hardly stand. I took him by the elbow and silently piloted him to the dormitory. In the dormitory Osadchy and Belukhin were already in bed. Osadchy suffered, and made a great fuss about himself. I had long noted that such "dare-devil" lads always bore sickness very badly. Belukhin, on the other hand, was in his usual high spirits.

Belukhin was the jolliest, happiest boy in the whole colony. He came of a long line of working-class forbears, in Nizhni Tagil; he had left home in search of flour during the famine, and had been retained in Moscow after a raid by the militia, and put into a children's home, from which he had run away to the streets. Caught once again, he had again run away. An enterprising individual, he preferred speculation to stealing, but afterwards was the first to recount his exploits with good-natured guffaws--so bold, original, and unsuccessful had they been. At last Belukhin had realized that he would never make a speculator, and decided to go to the Ukraine.

At one time or another Belukhin, a bright and knowing lad, had been to school. He knew a little about everything, but for all that, was crassly, astoundingly ignorant. There are such lads: they seem to have been through the grammar, they know fractions, they even have a dim conception of simple interest, but all this is so clumsily applied, that the effect is ludicrous. Belukhin's very manner of speaking was clumsy, but it was at the same time intelligent and spirited.

Laid low by the typhus, he was inexhaustibly garrulous, and his wit, as ever, was amazing in its perfectly fortuitous combination of words:

"Typhus--that's medical intellectuality--why should it attack a dyed-in-the-wool worker? When Socialism is born, we won't let that bacillus cross the threshold, and if it comes on urgent business--for ration tickets, or something, because, after all, it's got to live too--we'll refer it to the secretary. And we'll make Kolya Vershnev secretary, because he sticks to books like fleas do to dogs. Kolya will deal with this medical intellectual--fleas and bacillus are all the same to him, and all equal under a democracy."

"I'll be the secretary, and what will you b-b-be under Socialism?" stammered Kolya Vershnev.

Kolya was sitting at the foot of Belukhin's bed, with a book as usual, and, also as usual, dishevelled and tattered.

"I'll write the laws, for you to go about dressed like a human being, and not like ia tramp, so that even Toska Solovyov can't stand it. How can you be such a reader, and look like a monkey? I don't suppose even an organ-grinder would have such a black monkey. Would he, Toska?"

The lads laughed at Vershnev. Vershnev did not take offence, but only looked affectionately at Belukhin out of his good-natured grey eyes. They were great friends, had come to the colony at the same time, and worked side by side in the smithy but while Belukhin was already working at the anvils, Kolya preferred to remain at the bellows, because there he could keep one hand free to hold a book.

Toska Solovyov, more often called Anton Semyonovich (he and I had the same name and patronymic), was only ten years old. He had been found in our woods by Belukhin, unconscious, and in the last stages of starvation. He had come to the Ukraine from the Samara region with his parents, but had lost his mother on the way, and could not remember anything after that. Toska had a frank, pretty, childish face, which was almost always turned upon Belukhin. Toska had evidently seen very little in the course of his short life, and this gay, confident mocker, Belukhin, who did not know the meaning of fear and was such a thorough man of the world, had captured his imagination, and bound him to himself.

Toska was standing at the head of Belukhin's bed, his eyes blazing with love and admiration. His childish treble rang out in peals of laughter:

"Black monkey!"

"Toska here will be a fine fellow one day," said Belukhin, dragging him towards himself over the head of the bed.

Toska bent in confusion over Belukhin's quilted blanket.

"Listen, Toska, don't you go reading books like Kolya--look at him, he's gone and addled his own brains!"

"He doesn't read books--the books read him!" said Zadorov from the next bed.

I was sitting nearby, playing chess with Karabanov, and thinking to myself: they seem to have forgotten they have typhus.

"Call Ekaterina Grigoryevna, one of you,", I said.

Ekaterina Grigoryevna entered like an angel of wrath.

"What's all this sentimentality? Why is Toska hanging about here? What are you thinking about? It's preposterous!"

Toska nervously jumped off the bed, and retreated. Karabanov clutched his arm, crouched down, and started back towards the corner, in pretended panic.

"I'm afraid too!" he said.

"Toska!" croaked Zadorov, "take Anton Semyonovich's hand, too! How could you desert him?"

Ekaterina Grigoryevna looked helplessly from side to side amidst the joyous crowd.

"Just like Zulus!" she exclaimed.

"Zulus--those are the ones who go about without trousers, and use their friends for provisions," said Belukhin gravely. "One of them goes up to a young lady, and says: 'Allow me to accompany you!', and she, of course, is delighted. 'Please don't trouble! I can accompany myself,' she says. 'Oh, no! That won't do!' says he, 'You can't accompany yourself.' Then he takes her to the corner, and gobbles her up, without even mustard."

From the distant corner came Toska's shrill laughter. Even Ekaterina Grigoryevna had to smile.

"Zulus may eat young ladies, but you let little children go near typhus patients. It's just as bad!"

Vershnev seized the opportunity to avenge himself on Belukhin.

"Zulus d-d-don't eat young ladies," he stuttered, "and they're ever so much more c-c-cultured than you! You'll infect Toska!"

"And you, Vershnev," said Ekaterina Grigoryevna. "Why are you sitting on that bed? Go away this minute!"

Vershnev, somewhat confused, began gathering up the books he had scattered all over Belukhin's bed.

Zadorov stuck up for him.

"He's not a young lady! Belukhin won't eat him!"

Toska, already at Ekaterina Grigoryevna's side, said meditatively:

"Matvei wouldn't eat a black monkey!"

Vershnev held a regular pile of books under one arm, while under the other Toska suddenly appeared, kicking and laughing. Then the whole group flung itself on to Vershnev's bed, in the remotest corner of the room.

The next morning the deep hearse-like farm cart, built according to the design of Kalina Ivanovich, was filled to overflowing. On the floor of it, wrapped in quilts, sat our typhus patients. Across the top of it was a plank, on which Bratchenko and I perched. My heart was heavy, foreseeing a repetition of the trouble I had encountered when accompanying Vetkovsky. Besides, I was by no means certain that it was to their recovery the boys were really travelling.

Osadchy lay in the bottom of the cart, feverishly drawing the quilt over his shoulders. Dingy, grey wadding protruded through the quilt, and at my feet I could see Osadchy's boots, rough and worn. Belukhin pulled the quilt over his head, rolling it into the form of a tube.

"People will think we're a lot of priests," he said. "They'll wonder where on earth all these priests are going in a farm cart!"

Zadorov smiled in reply, his very smile showing how sick he felt.

At the fever huts everything was the same. I found a nurse who worked in the ward where Kostya was lying. She pulled herself up with difficulty in her headlong career along the corridor.

"Vetkovsky? In there, I think."

"How is he?"

"Nothing is known as yet."

Behind her back Anton made a slashing gesture with his whip. "Nothing is known! I like that! What does it mean--nothing is known?"

"Is that boy with you?" asked the nurse, glancing with distaste at the damp Anton, who smelled of the stables, and to whose trousers were sticking bits of straw.

"We're from the Gorky Colony," I began cautiously. "One of our boys--Vetkovsky--is here. And I've brought three more--also typhus cases I think."

"You'll have to go to the waiting room.

"But there's such a crowd there. Besides, I should like the boys to be together."

"We can't give in to everyone's whims."

And on she pressed.

But Anton barred her way.

"What's the matter with you? You might at least speak to a fellow!"

"Go to the waiting room, comrades, it's no use standing here, talking!"

The nurse was angry with Anton, and so was I.

"Get out of here!" I cried. "Who asked you to interfere?"

Anton, however, remained where he was, gazing in astonishment from me to the nurse, and I continued speaking to the latter in the same irritated tone:

"Kindly let me say a word. I want my boys to recover. For every one of them who recovers I'm ready to give two poods of wheat flour. But I desire to deal with one person. Vetkovsky's in your ward. See that the others are taken there, too."

The nurse seemed to be taken aback--no doubt insulted.

"What d'you mean 'wheat flour'?" she tasked. "What's this--a bribe? I don't understand!"

"It's not a bribe, it's a bonus, see? If you don't understand, I'll find another nurse. This is no bribe: we are asking for a little extra care for our patients, a little extra work, perhaps. The point is, they're undernourished, and they haven't any relatives, you see."

"I'll take them in my ward without any wheat flour. How many are there of them?"

"I've just brought three more, but I'll probably be bringing some more along in a little while."

"All right--come with me!"

Anton and I followed the nurse. Anton winked significantly, nodding towards the nurse, but it was obvious that he, too, was amazed at the turn affairs had taken. He meekly accepted my refusal to take any notice of his grimaces.

The nurse led us to a room at the remotest corner of the hospital, and I sent Anton for our patients.

Of course they all had typhus. The feldsher on duty looked rather surprised at our quilts, but the nurse said in resolute tones:

"They're from the Gorky Colony. Send them to my ward."

"But have you any room?"

"We'll manage. Two are leaving today, and we'll find somewhere to put another bed."

Belukhin parted with us gaily.

"Bring some more," he said. "It'll be all the warmer!"

We were able to fulfil his request in two days, when we brought in Golos and Schneider, and, a week later, three others.

And this, fortunately, was all.

Anton visited the hospital several times to ask the nurse how our patients were getting on. The typhus did not do our boys much harm.

We were just beginning to think about going to town to fetch some of them, when suddenly, an one of the first days of spring, a ghostly figure wrapped in a wadded quilt emerged from the woods into the noon sunlight. The ghost approached the smithy, and squeaked: "Well, my brave smiths! How are you getting along here? Still reading? Take care you don't wear your brains out!"

The boys were delighted. Belukhin, though wasted and sallow-faced, was as jolly and fearless as ever.

Ekaterina Grigoryevna fell upon him--what did he mean by coming on foot? Why hadn't he waited to be sent for?

"You see, Ekaterina Grigoryevna, I would have waited," he explained. "But I did so long for some honest grub! Whenever I thought to myself: They're eating our rye bread there, and kondyor, and whole basins of porridge--such a longing spread over my whole psychology...I simply couldn't bear to look at that gaber soup of theirs. Oh, my! Oh, my!"

He could hardly speak for laughing. "What gaber soup?"

"You know--Gogol wrote about it, and he made it sound awfully good. And they were fond of serving that gaber soup in the hospital, but every time I looked at it, I had to laugh. I simply couldn't adapt myself. Oh, my! Oh, my! All could do was laugh! And the nurse would scold me, and that made me laugh still more, and I just laughed and laughed. Whenever I remembered the word gaber soup I simply couldn't eat. The moment I took up my spoon I began to die of laughter. So I just went away. Have you had dinner here? I suppose it's porridge today, eh?"

Ekaterina Grigoryevna got some milk for him from somewhere or other. A sick person mustn't eat porridge right away.

Belukhin thanked her joyfully:

"Thank you! Thank you for humouring my dying wishes!"

But nevertheless he poured the milk on to the mush. Ekaterina Grigoryevna gave him up as a bad job.

The rest came back soon after.

Anton took a sack of wheat flour to the home of the nurse.