Master Vucea

excerpts Master Vucea had no servants. Apart from his cook, we were his only servants. Those of us who were poor and were not dressed German style figured on his purchase list.When he needed to decide who would go to the market place and who to the grocer's he called the roll."So-and-so!""Here!""Ha, the Tartar... he won't do... falls on his nose with the basket..."So he wouldn't do.Of course he wouldn't.He was sturdy, healthy, red-cheeked, but soft-skinned, had white, clean hands, a handsome straw hat and shiny boots."So-and-so!""Here!""Good... nice job, the Tartar, he'll do! On the list with him."Good! Scrawny and sallow. Thick boots, several sizes too large. Ragged clothes and cracked skin on their hands."So-and-so!""Here!""No good!... loafer... scatterbrained... no good!"That's right. No good! Grey, green-laced hunter's apparel, shorts and patent leather boots. A landowner's child. In bad weather he came to school in a coach.And, isn't that strange? These ones would never do for "five spanks and detention" either.The needy, the hungry, the slum-dwellers, the orphans, the humble, the beaten – to the market place.He would pick us up in twos and each day one pair would only come to school to shout "here – here – it's your turn to do the shopping." And they would go to Master Vucea's on Lucaci St. After they finished buying what was on the list the mistress kept them on to do the chores around the house, to beat the dust out of the mattresses and sweep the yard.And the treats Master Vucea used to buy – the best there were! How we used to ogle them over, our mouths watering! A fresh white loaf from White Eyes, white, crisp, folded over at the corners. The smell alone was worth all the money. To say nothing of the salami, the smoked bacon, the halvah, the almonds, the whole lumps of chocolate, the huge hazelnuts and the roasted chickpeas, the yellow sultanas and the boxed dates! All these I carried in a basket hanging from my bent forearm. And they were as heavy as they were scrumptious. And not once did he say: "Here, Tartar, take one!"What most tormented me on my way from the market place to the mistress's house, were the bread, the salami, the hazelnuts and the almonds. I would look away from the basket, but the loaf and the salami would smell and the almonds would rattle. They were alive. The bread and the salami pulled at my nose; the nuts and the almonds pulled at my ears; they all tugged at me to turn toward the basket in which I carried the weight of a happiness that was not mine.Steal from it?Oh, shut up...!You've no idea how often the thought tortured me.And it was not Christian moral as stayed my hand. I had no doubt God would have taken my side. But how could I tell what the grocer wrote in the small book?And you haven't met the mistress. Tall, slender, thin and with a look in her eyes... my God, that look! Like daggers dancing in her face! Were they to rivet on me for a quarter of an hour, they would have bored a hole through my head.As soon as I delivered the basket she would check the book, read silently moving her lips and then gave me a good once-over: my hands, my mouth, the breast piece of my shirt, my pockets. It felt to me as if she undressed me with her eyes, as if she shook my underclothes one by one, piece by piece.As he had taught us to be cowardly, dishonest, snitches and lazy, stealing would have come easy, but the mistress's eyes were more relentless than Christian moral.I could have sworn that at a glance her eyes weighed the salami and counted the hazelnuts and the almonds! Oh, what glorious dreams the royal school stamped down in my head! Instead of the palaces I fancied about while walking with the dog Grivei and the cat cuddled against my breast, I had come upon small, dirty houses with the plaster flaking off. Instead of a learned, kind teacher I had fallen in with a childish, mean old man.I hated him and my hatred, innocent victim, was endless.Should his house have burnt down with him inside I would have danced with joy. Still, I wouldn't complain about it at home. My mother's or my father's pity for my plight would have killed the little pride I had left. Imagine my parents, who had not allowed any of my brothers to take up commerce, on account that one had to be a servant before one could become a master, finding out that, once a week, I slaved?I would not whine, but every night, as my mother had me say my prayers, I would finish with these words: "God, have mercy on me and take Master Vucea to You, for he teaches us nothing, but beats us and sends us to the market place for him."The mistress sure was no apple of my eye, either, but on the last day of the final exams my prayers were answered, she avenged me for a whole year of torment.It was my turn; mine and a classmate's.We went over to Master Vucea's in the morning.We found him in his dressing gown.As soon as he laid eyes on us:"Good, you Tartars, very good, nice job, we've got a lot to do today."He took us to a shed and showed us a whole pile of harnesses, green with fly larvae and the brass fittings all rusted."Here, you Tartars, you should be done by nightfall: clean, rub and grease the harnesses.""But you haven't examined us, Master, and it's the last day today...""Never mind, you... it's all right... I know you're diligent students..."Master Vucea had a cart and two pairs of harnesses. At the start of the summer break he would buy a horse and sell it again when school started.The two of us could hardly carry those harnesses. Luckily, while I was only nine, my classmate was going on fourteen.The courtyard was big and the grass thick, dotted with the yellow stalks of dandelions. Under an old walnut tree, a well.By its casings we set down to rubbing the harnesses with dirt.Master Vucea had come out on the porch, ready to leave for school. Presently the mistress's sharp voice carried down to us:"Where do you think you're going?""To school, Precious!""What about Losty? It's been a week and you still haven't found him.""One of the Tartars, Precious, one of those good-for-naught rakes... we'll find him... I've sent out fifteen pupils...""And move your fat behind over here!"Trembling all over, Master Vucea went into the house. The fight broke out on account of the stores for their retreat to the country, for they were leaving the day after the exams."It's not enough!""It is, too...""The white caviar is not nearly enough!""It is, too...""The chestnuts won't suffice!""They will, too...""And you've bought too little salami!""It will do..."Then the mistress's voice grew shrill and really high-pitched:"Will do? You're saying? Will do? When I say it's not enough and it won't do...?"And the yells were followed by a "slap! bang! smack! whack!" And in between smacks! Master Vucea squeezed in a:"What are you doing, Precious? Stop that, Precious! Don't hit me, Precious! I'll buy, Precious!" When he stepped down from the porch his face was as red as beetroot.What a wonder! What a joy to me! I had reckoned he alone punished others with "five spanks and detention." He'd had his share of "fives" and no mistake!I almost fainted with laughter. My friend was repeating over and over again:"What are you doing, Precious? Stop that, Precious! Don't hit me, Precious! I'll buy, Precious!"It took me a while to pull myself together. I wiped my eyes dry and asked my friend:"What can that be? The mistress beats Master Vucea up!"He answered in a knowing tone:"She does all right. This is the fourth time I know of. She beats him. She is smaller and he is too large. She is young and he is old..."I didn't get it. We were smaller, and younger, and still he beat us...And, rubbing hard at the harnesses:"May God keep the mistress in good health, for she'll always be the smaller of the two." At nightfall, having finished rubbing and greasing the harnesses, we had graduated to the third grade. When I had entered the royal school I was eight years old and I mastered the four arithmetical operations and fractions. Now I was nine, I was fresh in the third grade, and I only remembered addition and subtraction.But little did I care! The royal school...And I walked home trotting gaily.Grivei, as usual, came out to greet me, wagged his tail and licked my hands."Well, Grivei, may God protect you from the royal school!" The next day I felt liberated. I had forgiven Master Vucea.

by Barbu Ştefănescu Delavrancea (1858-1918)