Old Stan

Children, have you ever thought that the grown-ups around you used to be children once? Well, ask any of them, and you will see that they are all pleased to recall their childhood. You will be grown-ups one day, and you will tell your children about today and then you will see how charming, how tender this age of yours is, an age when you pass from hug to hug, from caress to caress, when teachers strive hard for you and parents take care of all your worries and let you have only one: school. I was once as you are now; I remember many things from my childhood and I am going to tell them to you right now, for you to know how children used to be and feel in times past. I did not hide the deeds of bad people, because I know that bad deeds teach good people what not to do. In the elementary school which I attended, among the first grade boys it was fashionable to play "buttons." The more beautiful and rare the button, the more sought-after it was, and it was worth twice, three, five times the others. The military buttons were in the greatest demand. There was a boy, Spangescu, the son of a captain. He used to bring the most precious buttons, because he found them on his father's old tunics. This made him the envy of many of us who had no militia at home. In vain had I cut all the buttons of my father's over coat, in vain had I dug all day long in the winter coat wardrobe; I could not find any buttons to match Spangescu's. Nevertheless, there were metal buttons in my house, as well. Yes, old Stan had copper buttons. Stan was an old acquaintance in our yard. I had known him since my birth; he was old, short-sighed and kind, like all wise old men. He was a sort of a yard-cleaner. He took care of the garden, grafted roses and trees, fed the pigeons and carried water all day long. He had used to be a gendarme in the village, and he had kept a military cloak he wore in winter; in summer, he laid it on the green grass under the mulberry tree in the garden and slept on it. Well, my dear children, this is this cloak that I decided to try my luck with one morning. It had very shiny buttons, for old Stan was a hard-working man: he cleaned his buttons as if he were still in the barracks. I still remember how fast my heart was beating while I was sneaking to the mulberry tree under which the old man was taking a nap. It was a late April afternoon. Such fine weather! The sun was as warm as in summer and the birds were singing, hidden among the boughs of the apricot trees in bloom. Old Stan was snoring in the shadow. So, I could steal a button. I had the pen-knife in my hand and I was trembling with fear. Finally, I was convinced that he was fast asleep; I felt a corner of the cloak and, slowly as a thief, I cut off one button from the collar, so that he wouldn't be aware of it. Yes, the treasure was mine; I ran away. I went straight to the playground across the house where the children played "buttons." It was a great triumph. I had outplayed Spangescu. My button was worth ten coat buttons, twenty suit buttons, and a handful of vest buttons. I was the hero of the day. The next day I took another button; the third day, a third button. All week long, I deprived poor old Stan's cloak of its buttons. I didn't think my deed was theft, I thought it was an ambition to be fulfilled. I didn't want to be mocked at by Spangescu and his buttons. The next Sunday, when old Stan wanted to clean the buttons, he started to lament and curse the one who had left his cloak without them. He never mentioned my name, so I had gotten away with it. After lunch, I wanted to proceed again to stealing; there were only four buttons left on the cloak. I boldly got close to old Stan. The bad habit made me confident. No sooner had I made an attack on the button than something much like a pair of tongs caught my arm and a voice said: "I've caught you, thief!" He had indeed. He was awake; he had feigned sleep. Oh! I was so frightened! I must have turned pale, for old Stan, who was very fond of me, caressed my hair and said in a milder tone of voice: "Oh, my, dear boy, why have you done this to me? I am poor, I can hardly manage to get a loaf of bread and, instead of helping me, you want me to walk undressed at winter time?" His eyes were moist. As for me, I was about to burst into tears, because his words had struck the chords of my heart and had made me aware of my deed. I had some money saved in a piggy-bank. I fetched it from the house and I gave it to old Stan: "Here you are, buy yourself other buttons…" Then I ran away, unable to deal with my shame and tears. I haven't played "buttons" ever since; and ever since, my dear children, I have had this weakness: every time I run into an old man, especially one wearing a military cloak, I give him all the money that I have. I can still hear the painful words of saddened old Stan: "Oh, my, dear boy, why have you done this to me? I am poor, I can hardly manage to get a loaf of bread and, instead of helping me, you want me to walk undressed at winter time?"


by Ion A. Bassarabescu (1870-1952)