* * *As before, the chief figure at our school was the Head, Nikolai Antonich. He made all decisions, went into everything, attended all meetings. The senior boys visited him at home to "thrash things out". One day I was lounging about the assembly hall, trying to make up my mind whether to go down to the Moskva River or to Sparrow Hills, when the doors of the teachers' room opened and Nikolai Antonich beckoned to me.
"Grigoriev," he said (he had a reputation for knowing everyone in the school by name). "You know where I live, don't you?"
I said that I did.
"And do you know what a lactometer is?"
I said that I didn't.
"It's an instrument which tells you how much water there is in the milk. As we know," he went on, raising a finger, "the women who sell milk on the market dilute their milk with water. If you put the lactometer in such milk you will see how much milk there is and how much water. Do you understand?"
"Well, go and fetch it to me."
He wrote a note.
"Mind you don't break it. It's made of glass."
I was to give the note to Nina Kapitonovna. I had no idea that this was the name of the old lady from Ensk. But instead of the old lady, the door was opened by a spare little woman in a black dress.
"What do you want, boy?"
"Nikolai Antonich sent me."
The woman, of course, was Katya's mother and the old lady's daughter. All three had the same purposeful noses, the same dark, lively eyes. But the granddaughter and her grandmother were brighter looking. The daughter had a drooping careworn expression.
"Lactometer?" she said in a puzzled tone, after she had read the note. "Ah, yes!"
She went into the kitchen and returned with the lactometer in her hand. I was disappointed. It was just like a thermometer, only a little bigger.
"Be careful you don't break it."
"I — break it?" I replied with scorn.
I remember distinctly that the daring idea of testing the lactometer for snow salt struck me a minute or two after Katya's mother had shut the door behind me.
I had just reached the bottom of the stairs and stood there gripping the instrument with my hand in my pocket. Pyotr had once said that snow had salt in it. Would the lactometer show that salt or was Pyotr fibbing? That was the question. It needed testing.
I chose a quiet spot behind a shed, next to a refuse dump. A little house was built of bricks in the trodden-down snow, from which a black thread, resting on pegs, ran round the back of the shed- the children had probably been playing a field telephone. I breathed on the lactometer and with a beating heart stuck it into the snow next to the little house. You can judge what a stupid head I was when I tell you that, after a while, I pulled the lactometer out of the snow and finding no change in it, I stuck it back again upside down.
Nearby, I heard someone gasp. I turned round.
"Run! You'll be blown up!" came a shout from inside the shed. . It all happened in a matter of seconds. A girl in an unbuttoned overcoat rushed out of the shed towards me. "Katya," I thought, and reached for the instrument. But Katya grasped my arm and dragged me away. I tried to push her off and we both fell in the snow. Bang! Pieces of brick flew through the air, and powdery snow rose behind us in a white cloud and settled on us.
I had been under fire once before, at my mother's funeral, but this was much more terrifying. Rumblings and explosions still came from the refuse dump, and each time I lifted my head Katya quivered and said, "Smashing, eh?"
At last I sprang to my feet.
"The lactometer!" I yelled and ran like mad towards the dust-heap. "Where is it?"
At the spot where I had stuck it in the snow there was a deep hole.
Katya was still sitting in the snow. Her face was pale and her eyes shone.
"Silly ass, it was firedamp that exploded," she said scornfully. "And now you'd better run for it, because the policeman will soon pop—and he'll nab you. He won't catch me though."
"The lactometer!" I repeated in despair, feeling that my lips were beginning to quiver and my face twitch. "Nikolai Antonich sent me for it. I put it in the snow. Where is it?"
Katya got up. There was a frost in the yard and she was without a hat, her dark hair parted in the middle and one plait stuffed in her mouth. I wasn't looking at her at the time and didn't remember this until afterwards.
"I've saved your life," she said with a little sniff. "You'd have been killed on the spot, hit right in the back. You owe your life to me. What were you doing here around my firedamp anyway?"
I did not answer. I was choking with fury.
"I would have you know, though," she added solemnly, "that even if it had been a cat coming near the gas I should have saved it just the same. Makes no difference to me."
I walked out of the yard in silence. But where was I to go? I couldn't go back to the school-that much was clear.
Katya caught up with me at the gate.
"Hey, you, Nikolai Antonich!" she shouted. "Where are you off to? Going to snitch? [...] What form are you in? Wasn't it you who helped Grandma to carry her bag? You're in the third form, aren't you?"
"Yes," I said drearily.
She looked at me.
"Fancy making all that fuss over a silly thermometer," she said contemptuously. "If you like I'll say it was me who did it. I don't care. Wait a minute."
She ran off and was back in a few minutes wearing a small hat and looking quite different, sort of impressive, and with ribbons in her plaits.
"I told Grandma you'd been here. She's sleeping. She asked why you didn't come in. It's a good thing that lactometer is broken, she says. It was such a nuisance, having to stick it into the milk every time. It didn't show right anyway. It's Nikolai Antonich's idea, but Grandma can always tell whether the milk's good or not by tasting it."
The nearer we got to the school the more pronounced became Katya's gravity of manner. She walked up the stairs, head thrown back, eyes narrowed, with an aloof air.
Nikolai Antonich was in the teachers' room where I had left him.
"Don't say anything, I'll tell him myself," I muttered to Katya.
She gave a contemptuous sniff, one of her plaits arching out from under her hat.
It was this conversation that started off the string of riddles of which I shall write in the next chapter.
The thing was that Nikolai Antonich, that suave Nikolai Antonich with his grand air of patronage, whom we were accustomed to regard as lord and master of School 4, vanished the moment Katya crossed the threshold. In his place was a new Nikolai Antonich, one who smiled unnaturally when he spoke, leaned across the table, opening his eyes wide and raising his eyebrows as though Katya were speaking of God knows what extraordinary things. Was he afraid of her, I wondered?
"Nikolai Antonich, you sent him for the lactometer, didn't you?" Katya said motioning to me with her eyes in an offhand manner.
"I did, Katya."
"Very well. I've broken it."
Nikolai Antonich looked grave.
"She's fibbing, " I said glumly. "It exploded."
"I don't understand. Be quiet, Grigoriev! What's it all about, Katya, explain."
"There's nothing to explain," Katya answered with a proud toss of her head. "I broke the lactometer, that's all."
"I see. But I believe I sent this boy for it, didn't I?"
"And he hasn't brought it because I broke it."
"She's fibbing," I repeated.
Katya's eyes snapped at me.
"That's all very well, Katya," Nikolai Antonich said, pursing his lips benignly. "But you see, they've delivered milk to the school and I've put off breakfast in order to test the quality of this milk before deciding whether or not to continue taking it from our present milk women. It seems I have been waiting for nothing. What's more, it appears that a valuable instrument has been broken, and broken in circumstances which are anything but clear. Now you explain, Grigoriev, what it's all about."
"What a frightful bore! I'm going, Nikolai Antonich," Katya announced.
Nikolai Antonich looked at her. Somehow it struck me at that moment that he hated her.
"All right, Katya, run along," he said in a mild tone. "I'll have it out here with this boy."
"In that case I'll wait."
She settled herself in a chair and impatiently chewed the end of her plait while we were talking. I daresay if she had gone away the talk would not have ended so amicably. The lactometer affair was forgiven. Nikolai Antonich even recalled the fact that I had been sent to his school as a sculptor-to-be. Katya listened with interest.
From that day on we became friends. She liked me for not letting her take the blame on herself and not mentioning the firedamp explosion when telling my story.
"You thought I was going to catch it, didn't you?" she said, when we came out of the school.
"Not likely! Come and see us. Grandma's invited you."