Mishka, Kostya and I went to the country this summer a day before the rest of our Pioneer group moved out. We had been sent on ahead to put the place in order before the others arrived. We had begged Vitya, our Pioneer leader, to let us go because we wanted to get out to the country as soon as possible.
Vitya came along with us. They were just finishing with the cleaning when we arrived, and we set to work at once to hang pictures and coloured posters on the walls and cut out coloured paper flags which we threaded in chains and hung under the ceiling. Then we picked lots of meadow flowers and arranged them in bouquets on the window-sills. By the time we were finished the place looked very nice indeed.
In the evening Vitya went back to town. Marya Maximovna, the care-taker who lived in a little cottage next door to our house, came and offered to put us up for the night. She thought we would be afraid to sleep by ourselves in the empty house. But Mishka told her we weren’t afraid of anything.
When Marya Maximovna had gone, we put on the samovar and sat on the door-step to rest while it boiled up.
How lovely it was out there in the country! There were tall rowan-trees next to the house and a row of great lime-trees, very tall and very old, over by the fence. The branches of the lime-trees were dotted with crows’ nests and the crows circled over the trees cawing loudly all the time. The air was filled with the humming of cockchafers. They whizzed by in all directions. Some flew smack into the wall and dropped to the ground. Mishka collected the stunned ones and put them in a box.
The sun sank behind the forest and the clouds glowed red as if they were on fire. It was so beautiful that if I had my paints with me I would surely have painted a picture then and there with the pink clouds on top and our samovar below and the smoke curling up from our samovar chimney like the smoke from a ship’s funnel.
After a while the red glow went out of the sky and the clouds began to look like grey mountains. Everything looked so different that we began to think we had landed by some magic in a strange country.
When the samovar boiled, we took it inside, lit the lamp and sat down to drink tea. Moths flew in through the open windows and danced round and round the lamp. There was something strange and exciting about sitting there drinking tea by ourselves in the quiet, empty house, listening to the faint hissing of the samovar on the table.
After tea we prepared for bed. Mishka locked the door and fastened the handle with a bit of string.
“What’s that for?” we asked him.
“So the robbers shouldn’t get in.”
We laughed at him. “Don’t be afraid, there aren’t any robbers around here,” we told him.
“I’m not afraid,” he said. “But you never know what might happen. We’d better close the shutters too.”
We laughed at him, but we closed the shutters to be on the safe side. We pushed our beds together so we could talk without shouting across the room.
Mishka said he would sleep near the wall.
“You want the robbers to kill us first, is that it?” said Kostya. “All right, we’re not afraid.”
But even that didn’t satisfy him. Before he got into bed he brought in a chopper from the kitchen and hid it under his pillow. Kostya and I nearly burst our sides laughing.
“See you don’t chop our heads off by mistake!” we told him. “You might take us for robbers in the dark.”
“You needn’t be afraid,” said Mishka. “I won’t make any mistakes.”
We blew out the lamp, curled up under the blankets and began telling each other stories in the dark. Mishka was first, I was next, and when it was Kostya’s turn he told us such a long and frightening story that Mishka hid his head under the blanket with terror. Kostya started knocking at the wall to scare Mishka some more and said that someone was at the door. He kept it up for so long that I got a bit scared myself and I told him to stop it.
At last Kostya stopped fooling. Mishka calmed down and went to sleep. But for some reason Kostya and I couldn’t fall asleep. It was so quiet we could hear Mishka’s beetles rustling in the box. The room was as dark as the darkest cellar because the shutters were closed. We lay for a long time listening to the silence and whispering to each other in the darkness. At last a faint glimmer of light came through the shutters. Day was breaking. I must have dozed off because I woke up with a start to hear someone knocking.
I woke Kostya.
“There’s someone at the door.”
“Who could it be?”
For a minute all was silent. Then it came again: Rat-tat!
“Yes, someone is knocking,” said Kostya. “Whoever can it be?”
We waited, holding our breath. There was no more knocking and we began to think we had dreamed it.
And then we heard it again: Rat-tat! Rat-tat!
“Sh-sh,” whispered Kostya. “Let’s pretend we don’t hear it. Perhaps they’ll go away.”
We waited for a while, and then the tapping came again: Rat-tat!
“Oh dear, they’re still there!” said Kostya.
“Perhaps it’s someone from town?” I said.
“Who would come at this hour? No, let’s lie still and wait. If they knock again, we’ll ask who it is.”
We waited, but no one knocked.
“Must have gone away,” said Kostya.
We were just beginning to feel better when the tapping sounded again: Rat-a-tat!
I started and sat up in bed. “Come on,” I said. “Let’s go and ask who it is.”
We crept over to the door.
“Who’s there?” said Kostya.
There was no answer.
“Who’s there?” Kostya ‘repeated, louder this time.
No answer. “Must have gone away,” I said.
We went back. No sooner had we reached our beds than:
We dashed to the door. “Who’s there?”
“Is he deaf, or what?” said Kostya. We stood listening. We thought we heard something rustling outside.
“Who is it?”
We went back to bed and sat up holding our breath. Suddenly we heard a rustling on the roof above our heads, and then something went crash—bang on the tin roof.
“They’ve gone and climbed on to the roof!” said Kostya.
Bang! Crash! Bang! This time the noise came from the far side of the roof.
“Sounds as if there were two of them,” I said. “What are they doing on the roof, I wonder.”
We jumped out of bed and closed the door to the next room which led to the attic. We pushed the dining-table against the door and another smaller table against that and then a bed. But the banging on the roof continued, now on one side, now on the other, now both together. There seemed to be three of them up there. And then someone started knocking at the door again.
“Perhaps somebody is doing it just to frighten us,” I said.
“We ought to go out and jump on them and give them a good hiding for keeping us awake,” said Kostya.
“They’re more likely to give us a good hiding. There may be twenty of them out there!”
All this time Mishka was sleeping soundly. He hadn’t heard a thing.
“Perhaps we’d better wake him,” I suggested.
“No. Let him sleep,” said Kostya. “You know what a coward he is. He’d be scared out of his wits.”
As for us, we were ready to drop from sleepiness. Finally Kostya couldn’t stand it any longer. He climbed into bed and said:
“I’m fed up with all this nonsense. They can break their silly necks on the roof for all I care. I’m going to sleep.”
I pulled the chopper out from under Mishka’s pillow and put it next to me and lay down to try and get some sleep. The noise overhead quieted down gradually, until it sounded like rain pattering on the tin roof. I fell asleep.
We were awakened by a terrific banging on the door. It was broad daylight and there was a great commotion outside in the yard. I snatched up the chopper and ran to the door.
“Who’s there?” I shouted.
“Open the door, you chaps! What’s the matter with you? We’ve been knocking for half an hour!” It was Vitya, our Pioneer leader!
I opened the door and the boys crowded into the room. Vitya noticed the chopper.
“What’s that for?” he asked. “And what’s the meaning of this barricade here?”
Kostya and I related what had happened during the night. But the boys wouldn’t believe us. They laughed at us and said we must have imagined it all out of sheer fright. Kostya and I were so sore we could have cried.
Just then there was a knocking overhead.
“Hush!” cried Kostya and raised his finger.
The boys quieted down. Rat-tat-tat! The rapping noise was distinctly heard. The boys looked at one another. Kostya and I opened the door and went outside. The others followed. We walked a little away from the house and looked up at the roof. Perched up there was a plain, ordinary crow. It was pecking at something, and its beak went “Tap, tap, tap,” against the tin roofing.
When the boys saw the crow they burst out laughing and the crow flapped its wings with fright and flew away.
Several of the boys got hold of a ladder and climbed up on to the roof.
“The roof is covered with last year’s rowans!” they shouted down to us. “That’s what the crow was pecking at.”
How did they get there, we wondered. Then we noticed that the branches of the rowan-trees spread over the house. In the autumn when the rowans are ripe they must fall right on to the roof.
“But who knocked at the door, then?” I said.
“Yes,” said Kostya. “What were the crows doing, tapping at our door? I suppose you’ll say they wanted to come inside and spend the night with us.”
No one could answer that one. They all ran over to examine the door. Vitya picked a rowan up from the door-step.
“They didn’t knock at the door at all. They were picking up the rowans from the door-step, and you thought they were knocking at the door.”
We looked and sure enough there were some rowan berries on the door-step.
The boys had a good laugh at us. “Aren’t they heroes! Three of them scared by one crow!”
“There were only two of us,” I said. “Mishka slept all through it.”
“Good for you, Mishka!” cried the boys. “So you were the only one who wasn’t afraid of the crow?”
“I wasn’t afraid at all,” said Mishka. “I slept and didn’t hear anything.”
Ever since then Mishka has been considered the brave one, and me and Kostya, the cowards.