The Brothers Karamazov, by Fyodor Dostoyevsky

Chapter 4

A Lady of Little Faith

A visitor looking on the scene of his conversation with the peasants and his blessing them shed silent tears and wiped them away with her handkerchief. She was a sentimental society lady of genuinely good disposition in many respects. When the elder went up to her at last she met him enthusiastically.

“Ah, what I have been feeling, looking on at this touching scene! . . . “She could not go on for emotion. “Oh, I understand the people’s love for you. I love the people myself. I want to love them. And who could help loving them, our splendid Russian people, so simple in their greatness!”

“How is your daughter’s health? You wanted to talk to me again?”

“Oh, I have been urgently begging for it, I have prayed for it! I was ready to fall on my knees and kneel for three days at your windows until you let me in. We have come, great healer, to express our ardent gratitude. You have healed my Lise, healed her completely, merely by praying over her last Thursday and laying your hands upon her. We have hastened here to kiss those hands, to pour out our feelings and our homage.”

“What do you mean by healed? But she is still lying down in her chair.”

“But her night fevers have entirely ceased ever since Thursday,” said the lady with nervous haste. “And that’s not all. Her legs are stronger. This mourning she got up well; she had slept all night. Look at her rosy cheeks, her bright eyes! She used to be always crying, but now she laughs and is gay and happy. This morning she insisted on my letting her stand up, and she stood up for a whole minute without any support. She wagers that in a fortnight she’ll be dancing a quadrille. I’ve called in Doctor Herzenstube. He shrugged his shoulders and said, ‘I am amazed; I can make nothing of it.’ And would you have us not come here to disturb you, not fly here to thank you? Lise, thank him — thank him!”

Lise’s pretty little laughing face became suddenly serious. She rose in her chair as far as she could and, looking at the elder, clasped her hands before him, but could not restrain herself and broke into laughter.

“It’s at him,” she said, pointing to Alyosha, with childish vexation at herself for not being able to repress her mirth.

If anyone had looked at Alyosha standing a step behind the elder, he would have caught a quick flush crimsoning his cheeks in an instant. His eyes shone and he looked down.

“She has a message for you, Alexey Fyodorovitch. How are you?” the mother went on, holding out her exquisitely gloved hand to Alyosha.

The elder turned round and all at once looked attentively at Alyosha. The latter went nearer to Lise and, smiling in a strangely awkward way, held out his hand to her too. Lise assumed an important air.

“Katerina Ivanovna has sent you this through me.” She handed him a little note. “She particularly begs you to go and see her as soon as possible; that you will not fail her, but will be sure to come.”

“She asks me to go and see her? Me? What for?” Alyosha muttered in great astonishment. His face at once looked anxious.

“Oh, it’s all to do with Dmitri Fyodorovitch and — what has happened lately,” the mother explained hurriedly. “Katerina Ivanovna has made up her mind, but she must see you about it. . . . Why, of course, I can’t say. But she wants to see you at once. And you will go to her, of course. It is a Christian duty.”

“I have only seen her once,” Alyosha protested with the same perplexity.

“Oh, she is such a lofty, incomparable creature If only for her suffering. . . . Think what she has gone through, what she is enduring now Think what awaits her! It’s all terrible, terrible!

“Very well, I will come,” Alyosha decided, after rapidly scanning the brief, enigmatic note, which consisted of an urgent entreaty that he would come, without any sort of explanation.

“Oh, how sweet and generous that would be of you” cried Lise with sudden animation. “I told mamma you’d be sure not to go. I said you were saving your soul. How splendid you are I’ve always thought you were splendid. How glad I am to tell you so!”

“Lise!” said her mother impressively, though she smiled after she had said it.

“You have quite forgotten us, Alexey Fyodorovitch,” she said; “you never come to see us. Yet Lise has told me twice that she is never happy except with you.”

Alyosha raised his downcast eyes and again flushed, and again smiled without knowing why. But the elder was no longer watching him. He had begun talking to a monk who, as mentioned before, had been awaiting his entrance by Lise’s chair. He was evidently a monk of the humblest, that is of the peasant, class, of a narrow outlook, but a true believer, and, in his own way, a stubborn one. He announced that he had come from the far north, from Obdorsk, from Saint Sylvester, and was a member of a poor monastery, consisting of only ten monks. The elder gave him his blessing and invited him to come to his cell whenever he liked.

“How can you presume to do such deeds?” the monk asked suddenly, pointing solemnly and significantly at Lise. He was referring to her “healing.”

“It’s too early, of course, to speak of that. Relief is not complete cure, and may proceed from different causes. But if there has been any healing, it is by no power but God’s will. It’s all from God. Visit me, Father,” he added to the monk. “It’s not often I can see visitors. I am ill, and I know that my days are numbered.”

“Oh, no, no! God will not take you from us. You will live a long, long time yet,” cried the lady. “And in what way are you ill? You look so well, so gay and happy.”

“I am extraordinarily better to-day. But I know that it’s only for a moment. I understand my disease now thoroughly. If I seem so happy to you, you could never say anything that would please me so much. For men are made for happiness, and anyone who is completely happy has a right to say to himself, ‘I am doing God’s will on earth.’ All the righteous, all the saints, all the holy martyrs were happy.”

“Oh, how you speak! What bold and lofty words” cried the lady. “You seem to pierce with your words. And yet — happiness, happiness — where is it? Who can say of himself that he is happy? Oh, since you have been so good as to let us see you once more to-day, let me tell you what I could not utter last time, what I dared not say, all I am suffering and have been for so long! I am suffering! Forgive me! I am suffering!”

And in a rush of fervent feeling she clasped her hands before him.

“From what specially?”

“I suffer . . . from lack of faith.”

“Lack of faith in God?”

“Oh, no, no! I dare not even think of that. But the future life — it is such an enigma And no one, no one can solve it. Listen! You are a healer, you are deeply versed in the human soul, and of course I dare not expect you to believe me entirely, but I assure you on my word of honour that I am not speaking lightly now. The thought of the life beyond the grave distracts me to anguish, to terror. And I don’t know to whom to appeal, and have not dared to all my life. And now I am so bold as to ask you. Oh, God! What will you think of me now?”

She clasped her hands.

“Don’t distress yourself about my opinion of you,” said the elder. “I quite believe in the sincerity of your suffering.”

“Oh, how thankful I am to you! You see, I shut my eyes and ask myself if everyone has faith, where did it come from? And then they do say that it all comes from terror at the menacing phenomena of nature, and that none of it’s real. And I say to myself, ‘What if I’ve been believing all my life, and when I come to die there’s nothing but the burdocks growing on my grave?’ as I read in some author. It’s awful! How — how can I get back my faith? But I only believed when I was a little child, mechanically, without thinking of anything. How, how is one to prove it? have come now to lay my soul before you and to ask you about it. If I let this chance slip, no one all my life will answer me. How can I prove it? How can I convince myself? Oh, how unhappy I am! I stand and look about me and see that scarcely anyone else cares; no one troubles his head about it, and I’m the only one who can’t stand it. It’s deadly — deadly!”

“No doubt. But there’s no proving it, though you can be convinced of it.”

“By the experience of active love. Strive to love your neighbour actively and indefatigably. In as far as you advance in love you will grow surer of the reality of God and of the immortality of your soul. If you attain to perfect self-forgetfulness in the love of your neighbour, then you will believe without doubt, and no doubt can possibly enter your soul. This has been tried. This is certain.”

“In active love? There’s another question and such a question! You see, I so love humanity that — would you believe it? — I often dream of forsaking all that I have, leaving Lise, and becoming a sister of mercy. I close my eyes and think and dream, and at that moment I feel full of strength to overcome all obstacles. No wounds, no festering sores could at that moment frighten me. I would bind them up and wash them with my own hands. I would nurse the afflicted. I would be ready to kiss such wounds.”

“It is much, and well that your mind is full of such dreams and not others. Some time, unawares, you may do a good deed in reality.”

“Yes. But could I endure such a life for long?” the lady went on fervently, almost frantically. “That’s the chief question — that’s my most agonising question. I shut my eyes and ask myself, ‘Would you persevere long on that path? And if the patient whose wounds you are washing did not meet you with gratitude, but worried you with his whims, without valuing or remarking your charitable services, began abusing you and rudely commanding you, and complaining to the superior authorities of you (which often happens when people are in great suffering) — what then? Would you persevere in your love, or not?’ And do you know, I came with horror to the conclusion that, if anything could dissipate my love to humanity, it would be ingratitude. In short, I am a hired servant, I expect my payment at once — that is, praise, and the repayment of love with love. Otherwise I am incapable of loving anyone.’”

She was in a very paroxysm of self-castigation, and, concluding, she looked with defiant resolution at the elder.

“It’s just the same story as a doctor once told me,” observed the elder. “He was a man getting on in years, and undoubtedly clever. He spoke as frankly as you, though in jest, in bitter jest. ‘I love humanity,’ he said, ‘but I wonder at myself. The more I love humanity in general, the less I love man in particular. In my dreams,’ he said, ‘I have often come to making enthusiastic schemes for the service of humanity, and perhaps I might actually have faced crucifixion if it had been suddenly necessary; and yet I am incapable of living in the same room with anyone for two days together, as I know by experience. As soon as anyone is near me, his personality disturbs my self-complacency and restricts my freedom. In twenty-four hours I begin to hate the best of men: one because he’s too long over his dinner; another because he has a cold and keeps on blowing his nose. I become hostile to people the moment they come close to me. But it has always happened that the more I detest men individually the more ardent becomes my love for humanity.’

“But what’s to be done? What can one do in such a case? Must one despair?”

“No. It is enough that you are distressed at it. Do what you can, and it will be reckoned unto you. Much is done already in you since you can so deeply and sincerely know yourself. If you have been talking to me so sincerely, simply to gain approbation for your frankness, as you did from me just now, then, of course, you will not attain to anything in the achievement of real love; it will all get no further than dreams, and your whole life will slip away like a phantom. In that case you will naturally cease to think of the future life too, and will of yourself grow calmer after a fashion in the end.”

“You have crushed me! Only now, as you speak, I understand that I was really only seeking your approbation for my sincerity when I told you I could not endure ingratitude. You have revealed me to myself. You have seen through me and explained me to myself

“Are you speaking the truth? Well, now, after such a confession, I believe that you are sincere and good at heart. If you do not attain happiness, always remember that you are on the right road, and try not to leave it. Above all, avoid falsehood, every kind of falsehood, especially falseness to yourself. Watch over your own deceitfulness and look into it every hour, every minute. Avoid being scornful, both to others and to yourself. What seems to you bad within you will grow purer from the very fact of your observing it in yourself. Avoid fear, too, though fear is only the consequence of every sort of falsehood. Never be frightened at your own faint-heartedness in attaining love. Don’t be frightened overmuch even at your evil actions. I am sorry I can say nothing more consoling to you, for love in action is a harsh and dreadful thing compared with love in dreams. Love in dreams is greedy for immediate action, rapidly performed and in the sight of all. Men will even give their lives if only the ordeal does not last long but is soon over, with all looking on and applauding as though on the stage. But active love is labour and fortitude, and for some people too, perhaps, a complete science. But I predict that just when you see with horror that in spite of all your efforts you are getting farther from your goal instead of nearer to it — at that very moment I predict that you will reach it and behold clearly the miraculous power of the Lord who has been all the time loving and mysteriously guiding you. Forgive me for not being able to stay longer with you. They are waiting for me. Good-bye.”

The lady was weeping.

“Lise, Lise! Bless her — bless her!” she cried, starting up suddenly.

“She does not deserve to be loved. I have seen her naughtiness all along,” the elder said jestingly. “Why have you been laughing at Alexey?”

Lise had in fact been occupied in mocking at him all the time. She had noticed before that Alyosha was shy and tried not to look at her, and she found this extremely amusing. She waited intently to catch his eye. Alyosha, unable to endure her persistent stare, was irresistibly and suddenly drawn to glance at her, and at once she smiled triumphantly in his face. Alyosha was even more disconcerted and vexed. At last he turned away from her altogether and hid behind the elder’s back. After a few minutes, drawn by the same irresistible force, he turned again to see whether he was being looked at or not, and found Lise almost hanging out of her chair to peep sideways at him, eagerly waiting for him to look. Catching his eye, she laughed so that the elder could not help saying, “Why do you make fun of him like that, naughty girl?”

Lise suddenly and quite unexpectedly blushed. Her eyes flashed and her face became quite serious. She began speaking quickly and nervously in a warm and resentful voice:

“Why has he forgotten everything, then? He used to carry me about when I was little. We used to play together. He used to come to teach me to read, do you know. Two years ago, when he went away, he said that he would never forget me, that we were friends for ever, for ever, for ever! And now he’s afraid of me all at once. Am I going to eat him? Why doesn’t he want to come near me? Why doesn’t he talk? Why won’t he come and see us? It’s not that you won’t let him. We know that he goes everywhere. It’s not good manners for me to invite him. He ought to have thought of it first, if he hasn’t forgotten me. No, now he’s saving his soul! Why have you put that long gown on him? If he runs he’ll fall.”

And suddenly she hid her face in her hand and went off into irresistible, prolonged, nervous, inaudible laughter. The elder listened to her with a smile, and blessed her tenderly. As she kissed his hand she suddenly pressed it to her eyes and began crying.

“Don’t be angry with me. I’m silly and good for nothing . . . and perhaps Alyosha’s right, quite right, in not wanting to come and see such a ridiculous girl.”

“I will certainly send him,” said the elder.

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Last updated Friday, March 7, 2014 at 15:49