Three days later I got up from my bed, and as soon as I was on my legs I felt that I should not go back to it again. I felt all over that convalescence was at hand. All these little details perhaps would not be worth writing, but then several days followed which were not remarkable for anything special that happened, and yet have remained in my memory as something soothing and consolatory, and that is rare in my reminiscences. I will not for the time attempt to define my spiritual condition; if I were to give an account of it the reader would scarcely believe in it. It will be better for it to be made clear by facts themselves. And so I will only say one thing: let the reader remember the SOUL OF THE SPIDER; and that in the man who longed to get away from them all, and from the whole world for the sake of “seemliness!” The longing for “seemliness” was still there, of course, and very intense, but how it could be linked with other longings of a very different sort is a mystery to me. It always has been a mystery, and I have marvelled a thousand times at that faculty in man (and in the Russian, I believe, more especially) of cherishing in his soul his loftiest ideal side by side with the most abject baseness, and all quite sincerely. Whether this is breadth in the Russian which takes him so far or simply baseness — that is the question!
But enough of that. However that may be, a time of calm followed. All I knew was that I must get well at all costs and as quickly as possible that I might as soon as possible begin to act, and so I resolved to live hygienically and to obey the doctor (whoever he might be), disturbing projects I put off with great good sense (the fruit of this same breadth) to the day of my escape, that is, to the day of my complete recovery. How all the peaceful impressions and sensations in that time of stillness were consistent with the painfully sweet and agitated throbbings of my heart when I dreamed of violent decisions I do not know, but again I put it all down to “breadth.” But there was no trace now of the restlessness I had suffered from of late. I put it all off for the time, and did not tremble at the thought of the future as I had so recently, but looked forward to it, like a wealthy man relying on his power and his resources. I felt more and more proud and defiant of the fate awaiting me, and this was partly due, I imagine, to my actual return to health, and the rapid recovery of my vital forces. Those few days of final and complete recovery I recall even now with great pleasure.
Oh, they forgave me everything, that is my outburst, and these were the people whom I had called “unseemly” to their faces! That I love in people; that is what I call intelligence of the heart; anyway, this attracted me at once, to a certain degree, of course. Versilov and I, for instance, talked together like the best of friends, but only to a certain point: if at times we became ever so little too expansive (and we were over-expansive at times) we pulled ourselves up at once as though a trifle ashamed of something. There are cases when the victor cannot help feeling abashed before the vanquished, and just because he has gained the upper hand over him. I was evidently the victor; and I was ashamed.
That morning, that is the one on which I got up again after my relapse, he came in to see me, and then I learned from him for the first time of their compact in regard to mother and Makar Ivanovitch. He added that though the old man was better, the doctor would not answer for the future. I promised him with my whole heart that I would be more careful of my behaviour in the future. While Versilov was telling me all this I detected for the first time that he was most genuinely concerned about the old man, far more, indeed, than I could have expected from a man like him: and that he looked upon him as a being for some reason particularly precious to himself, not simply for mother’s sake. This at once interested me and almost surprised me, and I must confess if it had not been for Versilov I should have overlooked and failed to appreciate a great deal in this old man, who has left one of the most lasting and original impressions on my mind.
Versilov seemed to be afraid of my attitude to Makar Ivanovitch, that is he distrusted my intelligence and my tact, and he was therefore particularly pleased afterwards when he discerned that I knew how to behave with a man of quite different ideas and conceptions, could, in fact, be broad-minded and make allowances. I must confess, too (and I don’t think it’s humiliating to do so), that in this man of the people I found something absolutely new to me in regard to certain feelings and conceptions, something I had known nothing of, something far more serene and consolatory than my own previous ideas on those subjects. It was none the less impossible sometimes to keep from being impatient at some positive superstitions in which he believed with the most revolting placidity and steadfastness. But this, of course, was only due to his lack of education; his soul was rather happily constructed, so much so that I have never met a man superior in that respect.
What attracted one first of all, as I have observed already, was his extraordinary pure-heartedness and his freedom from amour-propre; one felt instinctively that he had an almost sinless heart. He had “gaiety” of heart, and therefore “seemliness.” The word “gaiety” he was very fond of and often used. He sometimes showed an almost abnormal exaltation, an almost abnormal fervour, partly, I imagine, because the fever never really left him; but that did not mar his beautiful serenity. There were contrasts in him, too: side by side with his marvellous simplicity (at times, to my vexation, he completely failed to detect irony) there was a sort of sly subtlety, most frequently apparent in controversy. And he was fond of controversy, though at times only through caprice. It was evident that he had been on foot over a great part of Russia, had heard a great deal; but I repeat, what he liked best of all was religious emotion, and therefore everything that led up to it, and he was fond of telling incidents that moved one to tenderness and reverence.
He was fond of telling stories in general. I listened to many tales from him of his own wanderings and various legends of the lives of the “ascetics” of ancient times. I’m not familiar with these stories, but I believe that he told them all wrong, adapting them for the most part from the traditions current among the peasantry. It was simply impossible to accept some of his versions. But together with evident distortions or even inventions there were continual flashes of something wonderfully complete, full of peasant feeling, and always touching. . . . I recall, for instance, one long story out of the life of “Marya of Egypt.” Of this “life” and of all such “lives” I had had no idea at all till then. I frankly confess that it was almost impossible to hear the story without tears, not from tender feeling, but from a sort of strange ecstasy. One felt something strange and burning like the parched sandy desert upon which the holy woman wandered among lions. I don’t want to talk of this though, and, indeed, I am not competent to do so.
Apart from the tender feeling of his stories I particularly liked certain extremely original views on disputed questions of modern life. He told me once, for instance, of something that had happened recently with a retired soldier; he had almost witnessed the incident. A soldier had come home to his village from serving in the army and did not like going back to live with peasants, the peasants did not like him either. The man went wrong, took to drinking, and robbed some one. There was no strong evidence against him, but he was taken up and tried. The lawyer was defending him successfully — there was no proof against him, but suddenly, after listening a long time, the prisoner suddenly stood up and interrupted him. “No, you stop,” said be, and then he told the whole story “to the tiniest grain of dust”; he confessed his full guilt with tears and penitence. The jury went out, were shut up to confer, and suddenly they all came back. “No, not guilty!” Every one shouted, and rejoiced, and the soldier stood rooted to the spot; he seemed turned into a post, and couldn’t make head or tail of it; he didn’t understand a word of the judge’s exhortation to him when he dismissed him. The soldier came out to freedom and still couldn’t believe it. He began to fret, sank into brooding, gave up eating and drinking, spoke to no one, and on the fifth day he took and hanged himself. “That’s what it is to live with sin on the soul,” said Makar Ivanovitch in conclusion. Of course that’s a foolish story, and there are masses of such stories nowadays in all the newspapers, but I liked his tone, and most of all some phrases of quite a new significance. Describing, for instance, how the soldier was disliked by the peasants when he went back to the village, Makar Ivanovitch used the expression, “And we know what a soldier is: a soldier’s a peasant spoilt.” Speaking afterwards of the lawyer who had almost won the case, he said: “We know what a lawyer is: a lawyer’s a conscience for hire.” Both these expressions he brought out without effort and almost without noticing them, and yet those two utterances revealed a complete and special attitude of mind on those subjects, not borrowed but peculiar to Makar Ivanovitch if not to the whole peasantry. These judgments among the peasants in regard to certain subjects are sometimes really marvellous in their originality.
“And how do you look upon the sin of suicide, Makar Ivanovitch?” I asked him, apropos of the same story.
“Suicide is the greatest human sin,” he answered with a sigh, “but God alone is judge of it, for He alone knows all, every limit, every measure. We must pray without ceasing for such sinners. Whenever you hear of such a sin pray fervently at bedtime for the sinner; if only you breathe a sigh for him to God, even though you don’t know his name — the more acceptable will be your prayer for him.”
“But will my prayer be any help to him if he is condemned already?”
“How can you tell? There are many, ah, many without faith who thereby confound those of little knowledge. Heed them not, for they know not what foolishness they are speaking. The prayer of the living for the condemned may still, in truth, benefit him. So what a plight for him who has no one to pray for him. Therefore, at your evening prayer say also at the end: ‘Lord Jesus, have mercy on all those also who have none to pray for them.’ Very acceptable and pleasant will be this prayer. Also for all living sinners —‘Lord, who holdest all destinies in Thy hand, save all sinners that repent not! — that, too, is a good prayer.”
I promised him I would pray, feeling that I was giving him immense pleasure by this promise. And his face did, in fact, beam with joy; but I hasten to add that in such cases he did not take up a superior attitude to me, as a monk speaking to a raw youth; on the contrary, he very often liked listening to me. He was never weary in fact of hearing me talk on various subjects, realizing that though a “youth” I was immeasurably superior to him in education. He was very fond, for instance, of talking of the life of hermits in the desert, and thought of the “desert” as something far above “pilgrimage.” I hotly opposed him, laying stress on the egoism of these people, who had abandoned the world and all the services they might have rendered mankind, simply with the egoistic idea of their own salvation. At first he didn’t quite understand; I suspect, indeed, he didn’t understand at all, but he zealously defended the “desert.” “At first, of course, one grieves (that is when first one goes to dwell in the desert), but then each day one is more glad at heart, and at last one looks upon the face of God.”
Then I drew a picture to him of the useful activity in the world of the man of science, the doctor, or any friend of humanity, and roused him to real enthusiasm, for I spoke with warmth; he kept eagerly assenting to my words, “That’s so, dear, that’s so! God bless you, your thoughts are true.”
But when I had finished he did not seem to agree entirely.
“To be sure, to be sure,” he sighed deeply, “but are there many who hold fast and are not led astray? Though money be not their God, yet it is a demi-god — a great temptation, and then there’s the female sex, and then doubt and envy. And so they will forget their great work, and will be absorbed in little things. But in the desert a man strengthens himself for every great deed. My dear, what is there in the world?” he exclaimed with intense feeling. “But is it only a dream? Take a grain of sand and sow it on a stone; when that yellow grain of sand of yours on the stone springs up, then your dream will come true in the world. That’s a saying of ours. Very different from Christ’s ‘Go and give all that thou hast to the poor and become the servant of all.’ Then thou wilt be a thousandfold richer than ever before; for not by bread alone, not by rich garments, not by pride, not by envy, wilt thou be happy, but by love multiplied immeasurably. Not a little riches, not a hundred-thousand, not a million, but the whole world wilt thou gain! Now we gather and have not enough and squander senselessly, but then there will be no orphans nor beggars, for all will be my people, all will be akin. I have gained all, I have bought all, every one! Now it is no uncommon thing for the rich and powerful to care nothing for the length of their days, and to be at a loss to invent a pastime; then thy days and thy hours will be multiplied a thousandfold, for thou wilt grudge the loss of a single minute, and wilt rejoice in every minute in gaiety of heart. Then thou wilt attain wisdom, not from books alone, but wilt be face to face with God Himself; and the earth will shine more brightly than the sun, and there shall be no more sorrow nor sighing, nothing but one priceless Paradise . . . .”
It was these enthusiastic outbursts that I believe Versilov liked particularly. He was in the room on this occasion.
“Makar Ivanovitch,” I interrupted suddenly, feeling immensely stirred myself (I remember that evening), “why, it’s communism, absolute communism, you’re preaching!”
And as he knew absolutely nothing of the doctrine of communism, and heard the word indeed for the first time, I began at once expounding to him all I knew on the subject. I must confess my knowledge was scanty and confused, even now, in fact, it is not very ample. But in spite of that I discoursed with great heat on what I did know. To this day I recall with pleasure the extraordinary impression I made on the old man. It was more than an impression. It was really an overwhelming effect. He was passionately interested, too, in the historical details, asking, “Where? How? Who arranged it? Who said so?” I have noticed, by the way, that that is characteristic of the Russian peasant. If he is much interested he is not content with general ideas, but insists on having the most solid and exact facts. It was just for such details that I was at a loss, and as Versilov was present I felt ashamed of my incompetence, and that made me hotter than ever. In the end Makar Ivanovitch could do nothing but repeat with emotion, “Yes: yes!” though he had evidently lost the thread and did not understand. I felt vexed, but Versilov interrupted the conversation and said it was bedtime. We were all in the room and it was late. But when he peeped into my room a few minutes later I asked him at once what he thought of Makar Ivanovitch, and what was his opinion of him? Versilov laughed gaily (but not at my mistakes about communism — he did not mention them in fact). I repeat again, he seemed absolutely devoted to Makar Ivanovitch, and I often caught a very attractive smile on his face when he was listening to the old man. At the same time this smile did not prevent his criticising him.
“Makar Ivanovitch is above all not a peasant but a house-serf,” he pronounced with great readiness, “who has been a servant, born a servant, and of servants. The house-serfs and servants used to share a very great deal in the interests of their masters’ private, spiritual, and intellectual life in the past. Note that to this day Makar Ivanovitch is most interested in the life of the gentry and upper class. You don’t know yet how much interest he takes in recent events in Russia. Do you know that he is a great politician? Don’t feed him on honey, but tell him where anyone is fighting and whether we are going to fight. In old days I used to delight him by such accounts. He has the greatest respect for science, and of all sciences is fondest of astronomy. At the same time he has worked out for himself something so independent that nothing you could do would shake it. He has convictions, firm, fairly clear . . . and genuine. Though he’s so absolutely uneducated he is often able to astound one by his surprising knowledge of certain ideas which one would never have expected to find in him. He extols the ‘desert’ with enthusiasm, but nothing would induce him to retire to the desert or enter a monastery, because he is above all things a ‘tramp,’ as he was so charmingly called by Alexandr Semyonovitch (and by the way there’s no need for you to be angry with him). Well, and what more? He’s something of an artist, many of his sayings are his own, though some are not. He’s somewhat halting in his logic, and at times too abstract; he has moods of sentimentality, but of a thoroughly peasant kind, or rather moods of that tenderness universally found among peasants, which the people introduce so freely into their religious feelings. As for his purity of heart and freedom from malice, I won’t discuss them; it’s not for you and me to begin upon that . . . .”
To complete my picture of Makar Ivanovitch I’ll repeat some of his stories, choosing those taken from private life. These stories were of a strange character. It was impossible to extract any sort of moral or general tendency from them, except perhaps that they were all more or less touching. There were some, however, which were not touching, some, in fact, were quite gay, others even made fun of certain foolish monks, so that he actually discredited his own convictions by telling them. I pointed this out to him, but he did not understand what I meant. Sometimes it was difficult to imagine what induced him to tell the story, so that at times I wondered at his talkativeness and put it down to the loquacity of old age and his feverish condition.
“He is not what he used to be,” Versilov whispered to me once, “he was not quite like this in the old days. He will soon die, much sooner than we expect, and we must be prepared.”
I have forgotten to say that we had begun to have something like “evenings.” Besides my mother, who never left him, Versilov was in his little room every evening; I came too — and indeed I had nowhere else to go. Of late Liza, too, had always been present, though she came a little later than the rest of us, and always sat in silence. Tatyana Pavlovna came too, and, though more rarely, the doctor. Somehow I suddenly began to get on with the doctor, and though we were never very friendly there were no further scenes between us. I liked a sort of simple-mindedness which I detected in him, and the attachment he showed to our family, so that I made up my mind at last to forgive him his professional superciliousness, and, moreover, I taught him to wash his hands and clean his nails, even if he couldn’t put on clean linen. I explained to him bluntly that this was not a sign of foppishness or of elegant artificiality, but that cleanliness is a natural element of the trade of a doctor, and I proved it to him. Finally, Lukerya often came out of the kitchen and stood at the door listening to Makar Ivanovitch’s stories. Versilov once called her in from the door, and asked her to sit down with us. I liked his doing this, but from that time she gave up coming to the door. Her sense of the fitting!
I quote one of his stories, selecting it simply because I remember it more completely. It is a story about a merchant, and I imagine that such incidents occur by thousands in our cities and country towns, if only one knew how to look for them. The reader may prefer to skip the story, especially as I quote it in the old man’s words.
I’ll tell you now of a wonderful thing that happened in our town, Afimyevsk. There was a merchant living there, his name was Skotoboynikov, Maxim Ivanovitch, and there was no one richer than he in all the countryside. He built a cotton factory, and he kept some hundreds of hands, and he exalted himself exceedingly. And everything, one may say, was at his beck and call, and even those in authority hindered him in nothing, and the archimandrite thanked him for his zeal: he gave freely of his substance to the monastery, and when the fit came upon him he sighed and groaned over his soul and was troubled not a little over the life to come. A widower he was and childless; of his wife there were tales that he had beaten her from the first year of their marriage, and that from his youth up he had been apt to be too free with his hands. Only all that had happened long ago; he had no desire to enter into the bonds of another marriage. He had a weakness for strong drink, too, and when the time came he would run drunk about the town, naked and shouting; the town was of little account and was full of iniquity. And when the time was ended he was moved to anger, and all that he thought fit was good, and all he bade them do was right. He paid his people according to his pleasure, he brings out his reckoning beads, puts on his spectacles: “How much for you, Foma?” “I’ve had nothing since Christmas, Maxim Ivanovitch; thirty-nine roubles is my due.” “Ough! what a sum of money! That’s too much for you! It’s more than you’re worth altogether; it would not be fitting for you; ten roubles off the beads and you take twenty-nine.” And the man says nothing; no one dares open his lips; all are dumb before him.
“I know how much I ought to give him,” he says. “It’s the only way to deal with the folk here. The folk here are corrupt. But for me they would have perished of hunger, all that are here. The folk here are thieves again. They covet all that they behold, there is no courage in them. They are drunkards too; if you pay a man his money he’ll take it to the tavern and will sit in the tavern till he’s naked — not a thread on him, he will come out as bare as your hand. They are mean wretches. A man will sit on a stone facing the tavern and begin wailing: ‘Oh mother, my dear mother, why did you bring me into the world a hopeless drunkard? Better you had strangled me at birth, a hopeless drunkard like me!’ Can you call that a man? That’s a beast, not a man. One must first teach him better, and then give him money. I know when to give it him.”
That’s how Maxim Ivanovitch used to talk of the folk of Afimyevsk. Though he spoke evil of them, yet it was the truth. The folk were froward and unstable.
There lived in the same town another merchant, and he died. He was a young man and light-minded. He came to ruin and lost all his fortune. For the last year he struggled like a fish on the sand, and his life drew near its end. He was on bad terms with Maxim Ivanovitch all the time, and was heavily in debt to him. And he left behind a widow, still young, and five children. And for a young widow to be left alone without a husband, like a swallow without a refuge, is a great ordeal, to say nothing of five little children, and nothing to give them to eat. Their last possession, a wooden house, Maxim Ivanovitch had taken for a debt. She set them all in a row at the church porch, the eldest a boy of seven, and the others all girls, one smaller than another, the biggest of them four, and the youngest babe at the breast. When Mass was over Maxim Ivanovitch came out of church, and all the little ones, all in a row, knelt down before him — she had told them to do this beforehand — and they clasped their little hands before them, and she behind them, with the fifth child in her arms, bowed down to the earth before him in the sight of all the congregation: “Maxim Ivanovitch, have mercy on the orphans! Do not take away their last crust! Do not drive them out of their home!” And all who were present were moved to tears, so well had she taught them. She thought that he would be proud before the people and would forgive the debt, and give back the house to the orphans. But it did not fall out so. Maxim Ivanovitch stood still. “You’re a young widow,” said he, “you want a husband, you are not weeping over your orphans. Your husband cursed me on his deathbed.” And he passed by and did not give up the house. “Why follow their foolishness (that is, connive at it)? If I show her benevolence they’ll abuse me more than ever. All that nonsense will be revived and the slander will only be confirmed.”
For there was a story that ten years before he had sent to that widow before she was married, and had offered her a great sum of money (she was very beautiful), forgetting that that sin is no less than defiling the temple of God. But he did not succeed then in his evil design. Of such abominations he had committed not a few, both in the town and all over the province, and indeed had gone beyond all bounds in such doings.
The mother wailed with her nurselings. He turned the orphans out of the house, and not from spite only, for, indeed, a man sometimes does not know himself what drives him to carry out his will. Well, people helped her at first and then she went out to work for hire. But there was little to be earned, save at the factory; she scrubs floors, weeds in the garden, heats the bath-house, and she carries the babe in her arms, and the other four run about the streets in their little shirts. When she made them kneel down at the church porch they still had little shoes, and little jackets of a sort, for they were merchant’s children but now they began to run barefoot. A child soon gets through its little clothes we know. Well, the children didn’t care: so long as there was sunshine they rejoiced, like birds, did not feel their ruin, and their voices were like little bells. The widow thought “the winter will come and what shall I do with you then? If God would only take you to Him before then!” But she had not to wait for the winter. About our parts the children have a cough, the whooping-cough, which goes from one to the other. First of all the baby died, and after her the others fell ill, and all four little girls she buried that autumn one after the other; one of them, it’s true, was trampled by the horses in the street. And what do you think? She buried them and she wailed. Though she had cursed them, yet when God took them she was sorry. A mother’s heart!
All she had left was the eldest, the boy, and she hung over him trembling. He was weak and tender, with a pretty little face like a girl’s, and she took him to the factory to the foreman who was his godfather, and she herself took a place as nurse.
But one day the boy was running in the yard, and Maxim Ivanovitch suddenly drove up with a pair of horses, and he had just been drinking; and the boy came rushing down the steps straight at him, and slipped and stumbled right against him as he was getting out of the droshky, and hit him with both hands in the stomach. He seized the boy by the hair and yelled, “Whose boy is it? A birch! Thrash him before me, this minute.” The boy was half-dead with fright. They began thrashing him; he screamed. “So you scream, too, do you? Thrash him till he leaves off screaming.” Whether they thrashed him hard or not, he didn’t give up screaming till he fainted altogether. Then they left off thrashing him, they were frightened. The boy lay senseless, hardly breathing. They did say afterwards they had not beaten him much, but the boy was terrified. Maxim Ivanovitch was frightened! “Whose boy is he?” he asked. When they told him, “Upon my word! Take him to his mother. Why is he hanging about the factory here?” For two days afterwards he said nothing. Then he asked again: “How’s the boy?” And it had gone hard with the boy. He had fallen ill, and lay in the corner at his mother’s, and she had given up her job to look after him, and inflammation of the lungs had set in.
“Upon my word!” said Maxim Ivanovitch, “and for so little. It’s not as though he were badly beaten. They only gave him a bit of a fright. I’ve given all the others just as sound a thrashing and never had this nonsense.” He expected the mother to come and complain, and in his pride he said nothing. As though that were likely! The mother didn’t dare to complain. And then he sent her fifteen roubles from himself, and a doctor; and not because he was afraid, but because he thought better of it. And then soon his time came and he drank for three weeks.
Winter passed, and at the Holy Ascension of Our Lord, Maxim Ivanovitch asks again: “And how’s that same boy?” And all the winter he’d been silent and not asked. And they told him, “He’s better and living with his mother, and she goes out by the day.” And Maxim Ivanovitch went that day to the widow. He didn’t go into the house, but called her out to the gate while he sat in his droshky. “See now, honest widow,” says he. “I want to be a real benefactor to your son, and to show him the utmost favour. I will take him from here into my house. And if the boy pleases me I’ll settle a decent fortune on him; and if I’m completely satisfied with him I may at my death make him the heir of my whole property as though he were my own son, on condition, however, that you do not come to the house except on great holidays. If this suits you, bring the boy to-morrow morning, he can’t always be playing knuckle-bones.” And saying this, he drove away, leaving the mother dazed. People had overheard and said to her, “When the boy grows up he’ll reproach you himself for having deprived him of such good fortune.” In the night she cried over him, but in the morning she took the child. And the lad was more dead than alive.
Maxim Ivanovitch dressed him like a little gentleman, and hired a teacher for him, and sat him at his book from that hour forward; and it came to his never leaving him out of his sight, always keeping him with him. The boy could scarcely begin to yawn before he’d shout at him, “Mind your book! Study! I want to make a man of you.” And the boy was frail; ever since the time of that beating he’d had a cough. “As though we didn’t live well in my house!” said Maxim Ivanovitch, wondering; “at his mother’s he used to run barefoot and gnaw crusts; why is he more puny than before?” And the teacher said, “Every boy,” says he, “needs to play about, not to be studying all the time; he needs exercise,” and he explained it all to him reasonably. Maxim Ivanovitch reflected. “That’s true,” he said. And that teacher’s name was Pyotr Stepanovitch; the Kingdom of Heaven be his! He was almost like a crazy saint, he drank much, too much indeed, and that was the reason he had been turned out of so many places, and he lived in the town on alms one may say, but he was of great intelligence and strong in science. “This is not the place for me,” he thought to himself, “I ought to be a professor in the university; here I’m buried in the mud, my very garments loathe me.” Maxim Ivanovitch sits and shouts to the child, “Play!” and he scarcely dares to breathe before him. And it came to such a pass that the boy could not hear the sound of his voice without trembling all over. And Maxim Ivanovitch wondered more and more. “He’s neither one thing nor the other; I picked him out of the mud, I dressed him in drap de dames with little boots of good material, he has embroidered shirts like a general’s son, why has he not grown attached to me? Why is he as dumb as a little wolf?” And though people had long given up being surprised at Maxim Ivanovitch, they began to be surprised at him again — the man was beside himself: he pestered the little child and would never let him alone. “As sure as I’m alive I’ll root up his character. His father cursed me on his deathbed after he’d taken the last sacrament. It’s his father’s character.” And yet he didn’t once use the birch to him (after that time he was afraid to). He frightened him, that’s what he did. He frightened him without a birch.
And something happened. One day, as soon as he’d gone out, the boy left his book and jumped on to a chair. He had thrown his ball on to the top of the sideboard, and now he wanted to get it, and his sleeve caught in a china lamp on the sideboard, the lamp fell to the floor and was smashed to pieces, and the crash was heard all over the house, and it was an expensive thing, made of Saxony china. And Maxim Ivanovitch heard at once, though he was two rooms away, and he yelled. The boy rushed away in terror. He ran out on the verandah, across the garden, and through the back gate on to the river-bank. And there was a boulevard running along the river-bank, there were old willows there, it was a pleasant place. He ran down to the water, people saw, and clasped his hands at the very place where the ferry-boat comes in, but seemed frightened of the water, and stood as though turned to stone. And it’s a broad open space, the river is swift there, and boats pass by; on the other side there are shops, a square, a temple of God, shining with golden domes. And just then Mme. Ferzing, the colonel’s wife, came hurrying down to the ferry with her little daughter. The daughter, who was also a child of eight, was wearing a little white frock; she looked at the boy and laughed, and she was carrying a little country basket, and in it a hedgehog. “Look, mother,” said she, “how the boy is looking at my hedgehog!” “No,” said the lady, “he’s frightened of something. What are you afraid of, pretty boy?” (All this was told afterwards.) “And what a pretty boy,” she said; “and how nicely he’s dressed. Whose boy are you?” she asked. And he’d never seen a hedgehog before, he went up and looked, and forgot everything at once — such is childhood! “What is it you have got there?” he asked. “It’s a hedgehog,” said the little lady, “we’ve just bought it from a peasant, he found it in the woods.” “What’s that,” he asked, “what is a hedgehog?” and he began laughing and poking it with his finger, and the hedgehog put up its bristles, and the little girl was delighted with the boy. “We’ll take it home with us and tame it,” she said. “Ach,” said he, “do give me your hedgehog!” And he asked her this so pleadingly, and he’d hardly uttered the words, when Maxim Ivanovitch came running down upon him. “Ah, there you are! Hold him!” (He was in such a rage, that he’d run out of the house after him, without a hat.) Then the boy remembered everything, he screamed, and ran to the water, pressed his little fists against his breast, looked up at the sky (they saw it, they saw it!) and leapt into the water. Well, people cried out, and jumped from the ferry, tried to get him out, but the current carried him away. The river was rapid, and when they got him out, the little thing was dead. His chest was weak, he couldn’t stand being in the water, his hold on life was weak. And such a thing had never been known in those parts, a little child like that to take its life! What a sin! And what could such a little soul say to our Lord God in the world beyond?
And Maxim Ivanovitch brooded over it ever after. The man became so changed one would hardly have known him. He sorrowed grievously. He tried drinking, and drank heavily, but gave it up — it was no help. He gave up going to the factory too, he would listen to no one. If anyone spoke to him, he would be silent, or wave his hand. So he spent two months, and then he began talking to himself. He would walk about talking to himself. Vaskovo, the little village down the hill, caught fire, and nine houses were burnt; Maxim Ivanovitch drove up to look. The peasants whose cottages were burnt came round him wailing; he promised to help them and gave orders, and then he called his steward again and took it back. “There’s no need,” said he, “don’t give them anything,” and he never said why. “God has sent me to be a scorn unto all men,” said he, “like some monster, and therefore so be it. Like the wind,” said he, “has my fame gone abroad.” The archimandrite himself came to him. He was a stern man, the head of the community of the monastery. “What are you doing?” he asked sternly.
“I will tell you.” And Maxim Ivanovitch opened the Bible and pointed to the passage:
“Whoso shall offend one of these little ones, which believe in me, it were better for him that a millstone were hanged about his neck and that he were drowned in the depth of the sea.” (Math. xviii, 6.)
“Yes,” said the archimandrite, “though it was not said directly of this, yet it fits it well. It is sad when a man loses his measure — the man is lost. And thou hast exalted thyself.”
And Maxim Ivanovitch sits as though a stupor had come upon him. The archimandrite gazed upon him.
“Listen,” said he, “and remember. It is said: ‘the word of a desperate man flies on the wind.’ And remember, also, that even the angels of God are not perfect. But perfect and sinless is one only, our Lord Jesus Christ, and Him the angels serve. Moreover, thou didst not will the death of that child, but wast only without wisdom. But this,” said he, “is marvellous in my eyes. Thou hast committed many even worse iniquities. Many men thou hast ruined, many thou hast corrupted, many thou hast destroyed, no less than, if thou hadst slain them. And did not his sisters, all the four babes, die almost before thine eyes? Why has this one only confounded thee? For all these in the past thou hast not grieved, I dare say, but hast even forgotten to think of them. Why art thou so horror-stricken for this child for whom thou wast not greatly to blame?”
“I dream at night,” Maxim Ivanovitch said.
But he told nothing more. He sat mute. The archimandrite marvelled, but with that he went away. There was no doing anything with him.
And Maxim Ivanovitch sent for the teacher, for Pyotr Stepanovitch; they had not met since that day.
“You remember him?” says he.
“You painted a picture with oil colours, here in the tavern,” said he, “and took a copy of the chief priest’s portrait. Could you paint me a picture?”
“I can do anything, I have every talent. I can do everything.”
“Paint me a very big picture, to cover the whole wall, and paint in it first of all the river, and the slope, and the ferry, and all the people who were there, the colonel’s wife, and her daughter and the hedgehog. And paint me the other bank too, so that one can see the church and the square and the shops, and where the cabs stand — paint it all just as it is. And the boy by the ferry, just above the river, at that very place, and paint him with his two little fists pressed to his little breast. Be sure to do that. And open the heavens above the church on the further side, and let all the angels of heaven be flying to meet him. Can you do it or not?”
“I can do anything.”
“I needn’t ask a dauber like you. I might send for the finest painter in Moscow, or even from London itself, but you remember his face. If it’s not like, or little like, I’ll only give you fifty roubles. But if it’s just like, I’ll give you two hundred. You remember his eyes were blue. . . . And it must be made a very, very big picture.”
It was prepared. Pyotr Stepanovitch began painting and then he suddenly went and said:
“No, it can’t be painted like that.”
“Because that sin, suicide, is the greatest of all sins. And would the angels come to meet him after such a sin?”
“But he was a babe, he was not responsible.”
“No, he was not a babe, he was a youth. He was eight years old when it happened. He was bound to render some account.”
Maxim Ivanovitch was more terror-stricken than ever.
“But I tell you what, I’ve thought something,” said Pyotr Stepanovitch, “we won’t open the heaven, and there’s no need to paint the angels, but I’ll let a beam of light, one bright ray of light, come down from heaven as though to meet him. It’s all the same as long as there’s something.”
So he painted the ray. I saw that picture myself afterwards, and that very ray of light, and the river. It stretched right across the wall, all blue, and the sweet boy was there, both little hands pressed to his breast, and the little lady, and the hedgehog, he put it all in. Only Maxim Ivanovitch showed no one the picture at the time, but locked it up in his room, away from all eyes; and when the people trooped from all over the town to see it, he bade them drive every one away. There was a great talk about it. Pyotr Stepanovitch seemed as though he were beside himself. “I can do anything now,” said he. “I’ve only to set up in St. Petersburg at the court.” He was a very polite man, but he liked boasting beyond all measure. And his fate overtook him; when he received the full two hundred roubles, he began drinking at once, and showed his money to every one, bragging of it, and he was murdered at night, when he was drunk, and his money stolen by a workman with whom he was drinking, and it all became known in the morning.
And it all ended so that even now they remember it everywhere there. Maxim Ivanovitch suddenly drives up to the same widow. She lodged at the edge of the town in a working-woman’s hut; he stood before her and bowed down to the ground. And she had been ill ever since that time and could scarcely move.
“Good mother,” he wailed, “honest widow, marry me, monster as I am. Let me live again!”
She looks at him more dead than alive.
“I want us to have another boy,” said he. “And if he is born, it will mean that that boy has forgiven us both, both you and me. For so the boy has bidden me.”
She saw the man was out of his mind, and in a frenzy, but she could not refrain.
“That’s all nonsense,” she answered him, “and only cowardice. Through the same cowardice I have lost all my children. I cannot bear the sight of you before me, let alone accepting such an everlasting torture.”
Maxim Ivanovitch drove off, but he did not give in. The whole town was agog at such a marvel. Maxim Ivanovitch sent match-makers to her. He sent for two of his aunts, working women in the chief town of the province. Aunts they were not, but kinsfolk of some sort, decent people. They began trying to turn her, they kept persuading her and would not leave the cottage. He sent her merchants’ wives of the town too, and the wife of the head priest of the cathedral, and the wives of officials; she was besieged by the whole town, and she got really sick of it.
“If my orphans had been living,” she said, “but why should I now? Am I to be guilty of such a sin against my children?”
The archimandrite, too, tried to persuade her. He breathed into her ear:
“You will make a new man of him.”
She was horrified, and people wondered at her.
“How can you refuse such a piece of luck?”
And this was how he overcame her in the end.
“Anyway he was a suicide,” he said, “and not a babe, but a youth, and owing to his years he could not have been admitted to the Holy Communion, and so he must have been bound to give at least some account. If you enter into matrimony with me, I’ll make you a solemn promise, I’ll build a church of God to the eternal memory of his soul.”
She could not stand out against that, and consented. So they were married.
And all were in amazement. They lived from the very first day in great and unfeigned harmony, jealously guarding their marriage vow, and like one soul in two bodies. She conceived that winter, and they began visiting the churches, and fearing the wrath of God. They stayed in three monasteries, and consulted prophecy. He built the promised church, and also a hospital, and almshouses in the town. He founded an endowment for widows and orphans. And he remembered all whom he had injured, and desired to make them restitution; he began to give away money without stint, so that his wife and the archimandrite even had to restrain him; “for that is enough,” they said. Maxim Ivanovitch listened to them. “I cheated Foma of his wages that time,” said he. So they paid that back to Foma. And Foma was moved even to tears. “As it is I’m content . . .” says he, “you’ve given me so much without that.” It touched every one’s heart in fact, and it shows it’s true what they say that a living man will be a good example. And the people are good — hearted there.
His wife began to manage the factory herself, and so well that she’s remembered to this day. He did not give up drinking, but she looked after him at those times, and began to nurse him. His language became more decorous, and even his voice changed. He became merciful beyond all wont, even to animals. If he saw from the window a peasant shamelessly beating his horse on the head, he would send out at once, and buy the horse at double its value. And he received the gift of tears. If any one talked to him he melted into tears. When her time had come, God answered their prayers at last, and sent them a son, and for the first time Maxim Ivanovitch became glad; he gave alms freely, and forgave many debts, and invited the whole town to the christening. And next day he was black as night. His wife saw that something was wrong with him, and held up to him the new-born babe.
“The boy has forgiven us,” she said; “he has accepted our prayers and our tears for him.”
And it must be said they had neither of them said one word on that subject for the whole year, they had kept it from each other in their hearts. And Maxim Ivanovitch looked at her, black as night. “Wait a bit,” said he, “consider, for a whole year he has not come to me, but last night he came in my dream.”
“I was struck to the heart with terror when I heard those strange words,” she said afterwards.
The boy had not come to him in his dream for nothing. Scarcely had Maxim Ivanovitch said this, when something happened to the new-born babe, it suddenly fell ill. And the child was ill for eight days; they prayed unceasingly and sent for doctors, and sent for the very best doctor in Moscow by train. The doctor came, and he flew into a rage.
“I’m the foremost doctor,” said he, “all Moscow is awaiting me.”
He prescribed a drop, and hurried away again. He took eight hundred roubles. And the baby died in the evening.
And what after that? Maxim Ivanovitch settled all his property on his beloved wife, gave up all his money and all his papers to her, doing it all in due form according to law, then he stood before her and bowed down to the earth.
“Let me go, my priceless spouse, save my soul while it is still possible. If I spend the time without profit to my soul, I shall not return. I have been hard and cruel, and laid heavy burdens upon men, but I believe that for the woes and wanderings that lie before me, God will not leave me without requital, seeing that to leave all this is no little cross and no little woe.”
And his wife heard him with many tears.
“You are all I have now upon the earth, and to whom am I left?” said she, “I have laid up affection in my heart for you this year.”
And every one in the town counselled him against it and besought him; and thought to hold him back by force. But he would not listen to them, and he went away in secret by night, and was not seen again. And the tale is that he perseveres in pilgrimage and in patience to this day, and visits his dear wife once a year.
Last updated Tuesday, August 25, 2015 at 14:07