LATE in the autumn, when the steamboat voyage finished, I went as pupil in the workshop of an icon painter. But in a day or two my mistress, a gentle old lady given to tippling, announced to me in her Vladimirski speech:
“The days are short now and the evenings long, so you will go to the shop in the mornings, and be shop-boy. In the evenings you will learn.”
She placed me under the authority of a small, swift-footed shopman, a young fellow with a handsome, false face. In the mornings, in the cold twilight of dawn, I went with him right across the town, up the sleepy mercantile street, Ilnik, to the Nijni bazaar, and there, on the second floor of the Gostini Dvor, was the shop. It had been converted from a warehouse into a shop, and was dark, with an iron door, and one small window on the terrace, protected by iron bars. The shop was packed with icons of different sizes, with image-cases, and with highly finished books in church Slav characters, bound in yellow leather. Beside our shop there was another, in which were also sold icons and books, by a black-bearded merchant, kinsman to an Old Believer valuer. He was celebrated beyond the Volga as far as the boundaries of Kirjinski, and was assisted by his lean and lively son, who had the small gray face of in old man, and the restless eyes of a mouse.
When I had opened the shop, I had to run to the tavern for boiling water, and when I had finished breakfast, I had to set the shop in order, dust the goods, and then go out on the terrace and watch with vigilant eyes, lest customers should enter the neighboring shop.
“Customers are fools,” said the shopman forcibly to me. “They don’t mind where they buy, so long as it is cheap, and they do not understand the value of the goods.”
Lightly tapping the wooden surface of an icon, he aired his slight knowledge of the business to me. He instructed me :
“This is a clever piece of work — very cheap — three or four vershoks — stands by itself. Here is another — six or seven vershoks — stands by itself. Do you know about the saints? Remember Boniface is a protection against drink; Vvaara, the great martyr, against toothache and death by accident; Blessed Vassili, against fevers. Do you know all about Our Lady? Look! This is Our Lady of Sorrows, and Our Lady of Abalak, Most Renowned. Do not weep for me, Mother. Assuage my griefs. Our lady of Kazan, of Pokrove; Our Lady of Seven Dolors.”
I soon remembered the prices of the icons, according to their size and the work on them, and learned to distinguish between the different images of Our Lady. But to remember the significations of the various saints was difficult.
Sometimes I would be standing at the door of the shop, dreaming, when the shopman would suddenly test my knowledge.
“Who is the deliverer from painful childbirth?”
If I answered wrongly, he would ask scornfully:
“What is the use of your head?”
Harder still was it for me to tout for customers. The hideously painted icons did not please me at all, and I did not like having to sell them. According to grandmother’s stories, I had imagined Our Lady as young, beautiful, and good, just as she was in pictures in the magazines, but the icons represented her as old and severe, with a long crooked nose, and wooden hands.
On market days, Wednesdays and Fridays, business was brisk. Peasants, old women, and sometimes whole families together, appeared on the terrace, — all old Ritualists from Zavoljia, suspicious and surly people of the forests. I would see, perhaps, coming along slowly, almostly timidly, across the gallery, a ponderous man wrapped in sheepskin and thick, home-made cloth, and I would feel awkward and ashamed at having to accost him. At last by a great effort I managed to intercept him, and revolving about his feet in their heavy boots, I chanted in a constrained, buzzing voice:
“What can we do for you, your honor? We have psalters with notes and comments, the books of Ephrem Siren, Kyrillov, and all the canonical books and breviaries. Please come and look at them. All kinds of icons, whatever you want, at various prices. Only the best work, — dark colors! We take orders, too, if you wish it, for all kinds of saints and madonnas. Perhaps you would like to order something for a Name Day, or for your family? This is the best workshop in Russia! Here are the best goods in the town!”
The impervious and inscrutable customer would look at me for a long time in silence. Suddenly pushing me aside with an arm like a piece of wood, he would go into the shop next door, and my shopman, rubbing his large ears, grumbled angrily :
“You have let him go! You’re a nice salesman!”
In the next shop could be heard a soft, sweet voice, pouring forth a speech which had the effect of a narcotic.
“We don’t sell sheepskins or boots, my friend, but the blessing of God, which is of more value than silver or gold; which, in fact, is priceless.”
“The devil!” whispered our shopman, full of envy and almost beside himself with rage. “A curse on the eyes of that muzhik! You must learn! You must learn!”
I did honestly try to learn, for one ought to do well whatever one has to do. But I was not a success at enticing the customers in, nor as a salesman. These gruff men, so sparing of their words, those old women who looked like rats, always for some reason timid and abject, aroused my pity, and I wanted to tell them on the quiet the real value of the icons, and not ask for the extra two greven.
They amazed me by their knowledge of books, and of the value of the painting on the icons. One day a gray-haired old man whom I had herded into the shop said to me shortly:
“It is not true, my lad, that your image workshop \s, the best in Russia — the best is Rogoshin’s in Moscow.”
In confusion I stood aside for him to pass, and he went to another shop, not even troubling to go next door.
“Has he gone away?” asked the shopman spitefully.
“You never told me about Rogoshin’s workshop.”
He became abusive.
“They come in here so quietly, and all the time they know all there is to know, curse them! They understand all about the business, the dogs!”
Handsome, overfed, and selfish, he hated the peasants. When he was in a good humor, he would com plain to me:
“I am clever! I like cleanliness and scents, incense, and eau-de-Cologne, and though I set such a value on myself, I am obliged to bow and scrape to some peasant, to get five copecks’ profit out of him for the mistress. Do you think it is fair? What is a peasant, after all? A bundle of foul wool, a winter louse, and yet ”
And he fell into an indignant silence.
I liked the peasants. There was something elusive about each one of them which reminded me of Yaakov.
Sometimes there would climb into the shop a miserable-looking figure in a chapan7 put on over a short, fur-coat. He would take off his shaggy cap, cross himself with two fingers, look into the corner where the lamp glimmered, yet try not to, lest his eyes rest on the unblessed icons. Then glancing around, without speaking for some time, he would manage at length to say:
“Give me a psalter with a commentary.”
Tucking up the sleeves of his chapan he would read the pages, as he turned them over with clumsy movement, biting his lips the while.
“Haven’t you any more ancient than this?”
“An old one would cost a thousand rubles, as you know.”
The peasant moistened his finger as he turned over the leaves, and there was left a dark fingerprint where he had touched them. The shopman, gazing with an evil expression at the back of his head, said:
“The Holy Scriptures are all of the same age; the word of God does not change.”
“We know all about that; we have heard that! God did not change it, but Nikon did.”
Closing the book, he went out in silence.
7 The Nikonites are the followers of Nikon, patriarch of Moscow, who objected to the innovation of Peter the Great in suppressing the patriarchate of Moscow, and establishing a State Church upon the lines of the old patriarchal church. They are also termed the Old Believers, who are split up into several extraordinary schisms which existed before and after the suppression of the patriarchate, but who, in the main, continue their orthodoxy.
Sometimes these forest people disputed with the shopman, and it was evident to me that they knew more about the sacred writings than he did.
“Outlandish heathen!” grumbled the shop-man.
I saw also that, although new books were not to the taste of the peasants, they looked upon a new book with awe, handling it carefully, as if it were a bird which might fly out of their hands. This was very pleasant to me to see, because a book was a miracle to me. In it was inclosed the soul of the writer, and when I opened it, I set this soul free, and it spoke to me in secret.
Often old men and women brought books to sell printed in the old characters of the preNikonovski period, or copies of such books, beautifully made by the monks of Irgiz and Kerjentz. They also brought copies of missals uncorrected by Dmitry Rostovski, icons with ancient inscriptions, crosses, folding icons with brass mountings, and silver, eucharist spoons given by the Muscovite princes to their hosts as keepsakes. All these were offered secretly, from their hoards under the floor.
Both my shopman and his neighbor kept a very sharp lookout for such vendors, each trying to take them away from the other. Having bought antiques for anything up to ten rubles, they would sell them on the market-place to rich Old Ritualists for hundreds of rubles.
“Mind you look out for those were — wolves, those wizards! Look for them with all your eyes; they bring luck with them.”
When a vendor of this kind appeared, the shop-man used to send me to fetch the valuer, Petr Vas — silich, a connoisseur in old books, icons, and all kind of antiques.
He was a tall old man with a long beard, like Blessed Vassili, with intelligent eyes in a pleasant face. The tendon of one of his legs had been removed, and he walked lame, with a long stick. Summer and winter he wore a light garment, like a cassock, and a velvet cap of a strange shape, which looked like a saucepan. Usually brisk and upright, when he entered the shop, he let his shoulders droop, and bent his back, sighing gently and crossing himself often, muttering prayers and psalms to himself all the time. This pious and aged feebleness at once inspired the vendor with confidence in the valuer.
“What is the matter? Has something gone wrong?” the old man would ask.
“Here is a man who has brought an icon to sell. He says it is a Stroganovski.”
“Aha, my hearing is bad. The Lord has stopped my ears against the abomination of the Nikonites.”
Taking off his cap, he held the icon horizontally, looked at the inscription lengthways, sideways, straight up, examined the knots in the wood, blinked, and murmured:
“The godless Nikonites, observing our love of ancient beauties, and instructed by the devil, have mali — ciously made forgeries. In these days it is very easy to make holy images, — oh, very easy! At first sight, this might be a real Stroganovski, or an Ustiujcki painting, or even a Suzdulski, but when you look into it, it is a forgery.”
If he said “forgery,” it meant, “This icon is precious and rare.”
By a series of prearranged signs, he informed the shopman how much he was to give for the icon or book. I knew that the words “melancholy” and “affliction” meant ten rubles. “Nikon the tiger” meant twenty-five. I felt ashamed to see how they deceived the sellers, but the skilful by-play of the valuer amused me.
“Those Nikonites, black children of Nikon the tiger, will do anything, — led by the Devil as they are! Look! Even this signature looks real, and the bas-relief as if it were painted by the one hand. But look at the face — that was not done by the same brush. An old master like Pimen Ushakov, although he was a heretic, did the whole icon himself. He did the bas-relief, the face, and even the chasing very carefully, and sketched in the inscription, but the impious people of our day cannot do anything like it! In old times image painting was a holy calling, but now they make what concerns God merely a matter of art.”
At length he laid the icon down carefully on the counter, and putting on his hat, said:
“It is a sin!”
This meant “buy it.”
Overwhelmed by his flow of sweet words, astounded by the old man’s knowledge, the client would ask in an impressed tone:
“Well, your honor, what is your opinion of the icon?”
“The icon was made by Nikonite hands.”
“That cannot be! My grandfather and my grandmother prayed before it!”
“Nikon lived before your grandfather lived.”
The old man held the icon close to the face of the seller, and said sternly:
“Look now what a joyous expression it has! Do you call that an icon? It is nothing more than a picture — a blind work of art, a Nikonski joke — there is no soul in it! Would I tell you what is not true? I, an old man, persecuted for the sake of the truth! I shall soon have to go to God. I have nothing to gain by acting unfairly.”
He went out from the shop onto the terrace, languid with the feebleness of old age, offended by the doubt cast upon his valuation. The shopman paid a few rubles for the picture, the seller left, bowing low to Petr Vassilich, and they sent me to the tavern to get boiling water for the tea. When I returned, I would find the valuer brisk and cheerful, looking lovingly at the purchase, and thus instructing the shopman:
“Look, this icon has been very carefully done!
The painting is very fine, done in the fear of God. Human feelings had no part in it.”
“And whose work is it?” asked the shopman, beaming and jumping about for joy.
“It is too soon for you to know that.”
“But how much would connoisseurs give for it?”
“That I could not say. Give it to me, and I will show it to some one.”
“Och, Petr Vassilich.”
“And if I sell it, you shall have half the hundred rubles. Whatever there is over, that is mine!”
“You need not keep on saying ‘Och’!”
They drank their tea, bargaining shamelessly, looking at one another with the eyes of conspirators. That the shopman was completely under the thumb of the old man was plain, and when the latter went away, he would say to me:
“Now don’t you go chattering to the mistress about this deal.”
When they had finished talking about the sale of the icon, the shopman would ask:
“And what news is there in the town, Petr Vassilich?”
Smoothing his beard with his yellow fingers, laying bare his oily lips, the old man told stories of the lives of the merchants. He spoke of commercial successes, of feasts, of illnesses, of weddings, and of the infidelities of husbands and wives. He served up these greasy stories quickly and skilfully, as a good cook serves up pancakes, with a sauce of hissing laughter. The shopman’s round face grew dark with envy and rapture. His eyes were wide with dreamy wistfulness, as he said complainingly:
“Other people live, and here am I!”
“Every one has his appointed destiny,” resounded the deep voice. “Of one, the fate is heralded by angels with little silver hammers, and’ of another, by devils with the butt-end of an ax.”
This strong, muscular, old man knew everything — the whole life of the town, all the secrets of the merchants, chinovniks, priests, and citizens. He was keensighted as a bird of prey, and with this had some of the qualities of the wolf and fox. I always wanted to make him angry, but he looked at me from afar, almost as if through a fog. He seemed to me to be surrounded by a limitless space. If one went closer to him, one seemed to be falling. I felt in him some affinity to the stoker Shumov.
Although the shopman went into ecstasies over his cleverness, both to his face and behind his back, there were times when, like me, he wanted to provoke or offend the old man.
“You are a deceiver of men,” he would say, suddenly looking heatedly into the old man’s face.
The latter, smiling lazily, answered:
“Only the Lord lives without deceit, and we live among fools, you see. Can one meet fools, and not deceive them? Of what use would they be, then?”
The shopman lost his temper.
“Not all the peasants are fools. The merchants themselves came from the peasantry!”
“We are not talking about merchants. Fools do not live as rogues do. A fool is like a saint — his brains are asleep.”
The old man drawled more and more lazily, and this was very irritating. It seemed to me that he was standing on a hillock in the midst of a quagmire. It was impossible to make him angry. Either he was above rage, or he was able to hide it very successfully.
But he often happened to be the one to start a dispute with me. He would come quite close to me, and smiling into his beard, remark:
“What do you call that French writer — Ponoss?”
I was desperately angry at this silly way of turning the names upside down. But holding myself in for the time, I said:
“Ponson de Terrail.”
“Where was he lost?” 8
8 Terryat in Russian means “to lose.”
“Don’t play the fool. You are not a child.”
“That is true. I am not a child. What are you reading?”
“And who writes best. Your foreign authors? or he?”
I made no reply.
“What do the foreign ones write about most?”
“About everything which happens to exist in life.”
“That is to say, about dogs and horses — whichever may happen to come their way.”
The shopman laughed. I was enraged. The atmosphere was oppressive, unpleasant to me. But if I attempted to get away, the shopman stopped me.
“Where are you going?”
And the old man would examine me.
“Now, you learned man, gnaw this problem. Suppose you had a thousand naked people standing before you, five hundred women and five hundred men, and among them Adam and Eve. How would you tell which were Adam and Eve”?”
He kept asking me this, and at length explained triumphantly:
“Little fool, don’t you see that, as they were not born, but were created, they would have no navels!”
The old man knew an innumerable quantity of these “problems.” He could wear me out with them.
During my early days at the shop, I used to tell the shopman the contents of some of the books I had read. Now these stories came back to me in an evil form. The shopman retold them to Petr Vassilich, considerably cut up, obscenely mutilated. The old man skilfully helped him in his shameful questions. Their slimy tongues threw the refuse of their obscene words at Eugenie Grandet, Ludmilla, and Henry IV.
I understood that they did not do this out of ill-nature, but simply because they wanted something to do. All the same, I did not find it easy to bear. Having created the filth, they wallowed in it, like hogs, and grunted with enjoyment when they soiled what was beautiful, strange, unintelligible, and therefore comical to them.
The whole Gostinui Dvor, the whole of its population of merchants and shopinen, lived a strange life, full of stupid, puerile, and always malicious diversions. If a passing peasant asked which was the nearest way to any place in the town, they always gave him the wrong direction. This had become such a habit with them that the deceit no longer gave them pleasure. They would catch two rats, tie their tails together, and let them go in the road. They loved to see how they pulled in different directions, or bit each other, and sometimes they poured paraffin-oil over the rats, and set fire to them. They would tie an old iron pail on the tail of a dog, who, in wild terror, would tear about, yelping and growling, while they all looked on, and laughed.
There were many similar forms of recreation, and it seemed to me that all kinds of people, especially country people, existed simply for the amusement of the Gostinui Dvor. In their relations to other people, there was a constant desire to make fun of them, to give them pain, and to make them uncomfortable. It was strange that the books I had read were silent on the subject of this unceasing, deep-seated tendency of people to jeer at one another.
One of the amusements of the Gostinui Dvor seemed to me peculiarly offensive and disgusting.
Underneath our shop there was a dealer in woolen and felt footwear, whose salesman amazed the whole of Nijni by his gluttony. His master used to boast of this peculiarity of his employee, as one boasts of the fierceness of a dog, or the strength of a horse. He often used to get the neighboring shopkeepers to bet.
“Who will go as high as ten rubles? I will bet that Mishka devours ten pounds of ham in two hours!”
But they all knew that Mishka was well able to do that, and they said:
“We won’t take your bet, but buy the ham and let him eat it, and we will look on.”
“Only let it be all meat and no bones!”
They would dispute a little and lazily, and then out of the dark storehouse crept a lean, beardless fellow with high cheek-bones, in a long cloth coat girdled with a red belt all stuck round with tufts of wool. Respectfully removing his cap from his small head, he gazed in silence, with a dull expression in his deep-set eyes, at the round face of his master which was suffused with purple blood. The latter was saying in his thick harsh voice:
“Can you eat a gammon of ham?”
“How long shall I have for it?” asked Mishka practically, in his thin voice.
“That will be difficult.”
“Where is the difficulty?”
“Well, let me have a drop of beer with it.”
“All right,” said his master, and he would boast:
“You need not think that he has an empty stomach. No! In the morning he had two pounds of bread, and dinner at noon, as you know.”
They brought the ham, and the spectators took their places. All the merchants were tightly enveloped in their thick fur-coats and looked like gigantic weights. They were people with big stomachs, but they all had small eyes and some had fatty tumors. An unconquerable feeling of boredom oppressed them all.
With their hands tucked into their sleeves, they surrounded the great glutton in a narrow circle, armed with knives and large crusts of rye bread. He crossed himself piously, sat down on a sack of wool and placed the ham on a box at his side, measuring it with his vacant eyes.
Cutting off a thin slice of bread and a thick one of meat, the glutton folded them together carefully, and held the sandwich to his mouth with both hands. His lips trembled; he licked them with his thin and long canine tongue, showing his small sharp teeth, and with a dog-like movement bent his snout again over the meat.
“He has begun!”
“Look at the time!”
All eyes were turned in a business-like manner on the face of the glutton, on his lower jaw, on the round protuberances near his ears; they watched the sharp chin rise and fall regularly, and drowsily uttered their thoughts.
“He eats cleanly — like a bear.”
“Have you ever seen a bear eat?”
“Do I live in the woods? There is a saying, ‘he gobbles like a bear.’ ”
“Like a pig, it says.”
“Pigs don’t eat pig.”
They laughed unwillingly, and soon some one knowingly said:
“Pigs eat everything — little pigs and their own sisters.”
The face of the glutton gradually grew darker, his ears became livid, his running eyes crept out of their bony pit, he breathed with difficulty, but his chin moved as regularly as ever.
“Take it easy, Mikhail, there is time!” they encouraged him.
He uneasily measured the remains of the meat with his eyes, drank some beer, and once more began to munch. The spectators became more animated. Looking more often at the watch in the hand of Mishka’s master, they suggested to one another:
“Don’t you think he may have put the watch back? Take it away from him! Watch Mishka in case he should put any meat up his sleeve! He won’t finish it in the time!”
Mishka’s master cried passionately:
“I’ll take you on for a quarter of a ruble! Mishka, don’t give way!”
They began to dispute with the master, but no one would take the bet.
And Mishka went on eating and eating; his face began to look like the ham, his sharp grisly nose whistled plaintively. It was terrible to look at him. It seemed to me that he was about to scream, to wail:
“Have mercy on me!”
At length he finished it all, opened his tipsy eyes wide, and said in a hoarse, tired voice:
“Let me go to sleep.”
But his master, looking at his watch, cried angrily:
“You have taken four minutes too long, you wretch!”
The others teased him:
“What a pity we did not take you on; you would have lost.”
“However, he is a regular wild animal, that fellow.”
“Ye — e — es, he ought to be in a show.”
“You see what monsters the Lord can make of men, eh?”
“Let us go and have some tea, shall we?”
And they swam like barges to the tavern.
I wanted to know what stirred in the bosoms of these heavy, iron-hearted people that they should gather round the poor fellow because his unhealthy gluttony amused them.
It was dark and dull in that narrow gallery closel3f packed with wool, sheepskins, hemp, ropes, felt, boots, and saddlery. It was cut off — from the pavement by pillars of brick, clumsily thick, weather-beaten, and spattered with mud from the road. All the bricks and all the chinks between them, all the holes made by the fallen-away mortar, had been mentally counted by me a thousand times, and their hideous designs were forever heavily imprinted on my memory.
The foot-passenger dawdled along the pavement; hackney carriages and sledges loaded with goods passed up the road without haste. Beyond the street, in a red-brick, square, two-storied shop, was the market-place, littered with cases, straw, crumpled paper, covered with dirt and trampled snow.
All this, together with the people and the horses, in spite of the movement, seemed to be motionless, or lazily moving round and round in one place to which it was fastened by invisible chains. One felt suddenly that this life was almost devoid of sound, or so poor in sounds that it amounted to dumbness. The sides of the sledges squeaked, the doors of the shops slammed, sellers of pies and honey cried their wares, but their voices sounded unhappy, unwilling. They were all alike; one quickly became used to them, and ceased to pay attention to them.
The church-bells tolled funerally. That melancholy sound was always in my ears. It seemed to float in the air over the market-place without ceasing from morning to night; it was mingled with all my thoughts and feelings; it lay like a copper veneer over all my impressions.
Tedium, coldness, and want breathed all around: from the earth covered with dirty snow, from the gray snow-drift on the roof, from the flesh-colored bricks of the buildings; tedium rose from the chimneys in a thick gray smoke, and crept up to the gray, low, empty sky; with tedium horses sweated and people sighed. They had a peculiar smell of their own, these people — the oppressive dull smell of sweat, fat, hemp oil, hearth-cakes, and smoke. It was an odor which pressed upon one’s head like a warm close-fitting cap, and ran down into one’s breast, arousing a strange feeling of intoxication, a vague desire to shut one’s eyes, to cry out despairingly, to run away somewhere and knock one’s head against the first wall.
I gazed into the faces of the merchants, over-nourished, full-blooded, frost-bitten, and as immobile as if they were asleep. These people often yawned, opening their mouths like fish which have been cast on dry land.
In winter, trade was slack and there was not in the eyes of the dealer that cautious, rapacious gleam which somehow made them bright and animated in the summer. The heavy fur coats hampered their movements, bowed them to the earth. As a rule they spoke lazily, but when they fell into a passion, they grew vehement. I had an idea that they did this purposely, in order to show one another that they were alive.
It was perfectly clear to me that tedium weighed upon them, was killing them, and the unsuccessful struggle against its overwhelming strength was the only explanation I could give of their cruelty and senseless amusements at the expense of others.
Sometimes I discussed this with Petr Vissilich.
Although as a rule he behaved to me scornfully and jeeringly, he liked me for my partiality for books, and at times he permitted himself to talk to me instructively, seriously.
“I don’t like the way these merchants live,” I said.
Twisting a strand of his beard in his long fingers, he said:
“And how do you know how they live? Do you then often visit them at their houses? This is merely a street, my friend, and people do not live in a street; they simply buy and sell, and they get through that as quickly as they can, and then go home again! People walk about the streets with their clothes on, and you do not know what they are like under their clothes. What a man really is is seen in his own home, within his own four walls, and how he lives there — that you know nothing about!”
“Yes, but they have the same ideas whether they are here or at home, don’t they?”
“And how can any one know what ideas his neighbors have?” said the old man, making his eyes round. “Thoughts are like lice; you cannot count them. It may be that a man, on going to his home, falls on his knees and, weeping, prays to God: Torgive me, Lord, I have defiled Thy holy day!’ It may be that his house is a sort of monastery to him, and he lives there alone with his God. You see how it is! Every spider knows its own corner, spins its own web, and understands its own position, so that it may hold its own.”
When he spoke seriously, his voice went lower and lower to a deep base, as if he were communicating secrets.
“Here you are judging others, and it is too soon for you; at your age one lives not by one’s reason but by one’s eyes. What you must do is to look, remember, and hold your tongue. The mind is for business, but faith is for the soul. It is good for you to read books, but there must be moderation in all things, and some have read themselves into madness and godlessness.”
I looked upon him as immortal; it was hard for me to believe that he might grow older and change. He liked to tell stories about merchants and coiners who had become notorious. I had heard many such stories from grandfather, who told them better than the valuer, but the underlying theme was the same — that riches always lead to sin towards God and one’s fellow-creatures. Petr Vassilich had no pity for human creatures, but he spoke of God with warmth of feeling, sighing and covering his eyes.
“And so they try to cheat God, and He, the Lord Jesus Christ, sees it all and weeps. ‘My people, my people, my unhappy people, hell is being prepared for you!’ ”
Once I jokingly reminded him:
“But you cheat the peasants yourself.”
He was not offended by this.
“Is that a great matter as far as I am concerned?” he said. “I may rob them of from three to five rubles, and that is all it amounts to!”
When he found me reading, he would take the book out of my hands and ask me questions about what I had read, in a fault-finding manner. With amazed incredulity he would say to the shopman:
“Just look at that now; he understands books, the young rascal!”
And he would give me a memorable, intelligent lecture:
“Listen to what I tell you now; it is worth your while. There were two Kyrills, both of them bishops; one Kyrill of Alexandria, and the other Kyrill of Jerusalem. The first warred against the cursed heretic, Nestorius, who taught obscenely that Our Lady was born in original sin and therefore could not have given birth to God; but that she gave birth to a human being with the name and attributes of the Messiah, the Saviour of the world, and therefore she should be called not the God–Bearer, but the Christ–Bearer. Do you understand? That is called heresy! And Kyrill of Jerusalem fought against the Arian heretics.”
I was delighted with his knowledge of church history, and he, stroking his beard with his well-cared-for, priest-like hands, boasted:
“I am a past master in that sort of thing. When I was in Moscow, I was engaged in a verbal debate against the poisonous doctrines of the Nikonites, with both priests and seculars. I, my little one, actually conducted discussions with professors, yes! To one of the priests I so drove home the verbal scourge that his nose bled infernally, that it did!”
His cheeks were flushed; his eyes shone.
The bleeding of the nose of his opponent was evidently the highest point of his success, in his opinion; the highest ruby in the golden crown of his glory, and he told the story voluptuously.
“A ha — a — andsome, wholesome-looking priest he was! He stood on the platform and drip, drip, the blood came from his nose. He did not see his shame. Ferocious was the priest as a desert lion; his voice was like a bell. But very quietly I got my words in between his ribs, like saws. He was really as hot as a stove, made red-hot by heretical malice — ekh — that was a business!”
Occasionally other valuers came. These were Pakhomi, a man with a fat belly, in greasy clothes, with one crooked eye who was wrinkled and snarling; Lukian, a little old man, smooth as a mouse, kind and brisk; and with him came a big, gloomy man looking like a coachman, black bearded, with a deathlike face, unpleasant to look upon, but handsome, and with eyes which never seemed to move. Almost always they brought ancient books, icons and thuribles to sell, or some kind of bowl. Sometimes they brought the vendors — an old man or woman from the Volga. When their business was finished, they sat on the counter, looking just like crows on a furrow, drank tea with rolls and lenten sugar, and told each other about the persecutions of the Nikonites.
Here a search had been made, and books of devotion had been confiscated; there the police had closed a place of worship, and had contrived to bring its owner to justice under Article 103. This Article 103 was frequently the theme of their discussions, but they spoke of it calmly, as of something unavoidable, like the frosts of winter. The words police, search, prison, justice, Siberia — these words, continually recurring in their conversations about the persecutions for religious beliefs, fell on my heart like hot coals, kindling sympathy and fellow feeling for these Old Believers. Reading had taught me to look up to people who were obstinate in pursuing their aims, to value spiritual steadfastness.
I forgot all the bad which I saw in these teachers of life. I felt only their calm stubbornness, behind which, it seemed to me, was hidden an unwavering belief in the teachings of their faith, for which they were ready to suffer all kinds of torments.
At length, when I had come across many specimens of these guardians of the old faith, both among the people and among the intellectuals, I understood that this obstinacy was the oriental passivity of people who never moved from the place whereon they stood, and had no desire to move from it, but were bound by strong ties to the ways of the old words, and worn-out ideas. They were steeped in these words and ideas. Their wills were stationary, incapable of looking forward, and when some blow from without cast them out of their accustomed place, they mechanically and without resistance let themselves roll down, like a stone off a hill. They kept their own fasts in the graveyards of lived-out truths, with a deadly strength of memory for the past, and an insane love of suffering and persecution; but if the possibility of suffering were taken away from them, they faded away, disappeared like a cloud on a fresh winter day.
The faith for which they, with satisfaction and great self-complacency, were ready to suffer is incontestably a strong faith, but it resembles well-worn clothes, covered with all kinds of dirt, and for that very reason is less vulnerable to the ravages of time. Thought and feeling become accustomed to the narrow and oppressive envelope of prejudice and dogma, and although wingless and mutilated, they live in ease and comfort.
This belief founded on habits is one of the most grievous and harmful manifestations of our lives. Within the domains of such beliefs, as within the shadows of stone walls, anything new is born slowly, is deformed, and grows ansemic. In that dark faith there are very few of the beams of love, too many causes of offense, irritations, and petty spites which are always friendly with hatred. The flame of that faith is the phosphorescent gleam of putrescence.
But before I was convinced of this, I had to live through many weary years, break up many images in my soul, and cast them out of my memory. But at the time when I first came across these teachers of life, in the midst of tedious and sordid realities, they appeared to me as persons of great spiritual strength, the best people in the world. Almost every one of them had been persecuted, put in prison, had been banished from different towns, traveling by stages with convicts. They all lived cautious, hidden lives.
However, I saw that while pitying the “narrow spirit” of the Nikonites, these old people willingly and with great satisfaction kept one another within narrow bounds.
Crooked Pakhomie, when he had been drinking, liked to boast of his wonderful memory with regard to matters of the faith. He had several books at his finger-ends, as a Jew has his Talmud. He could put his finger on his favorite page, and from the word on which he had placed his finger, Pakhomie could go on reciting by heart in his mild, snuffling voice. He always looked on the floor, and his solitary eye ran over the floor disquietingly, as if he were seeking some lost and very valuable article.
The book with which he most often performed this trick was that of Prince Muishetzki, called “The Russian Vine,” and the passage he best knew was, “The long suffering and courageous suffering of wonderful and valiant martyrs,” but Petr Vassilitch was always trying to catch him in a mistake.
“That’s a lie! That did not happen to Cyprian the Mystic, but to Denis the Chaste.”
“What other Denis could it be? You are thinking of Dionysius.”
“Don’t shuffle with words!”
“And don’t you try to teach me!”
In a few moments both, swollen with rage, would be looking fixedly at one another, and saying:
“Perverter of the truth! Away, shameless one!”
Pakhomie answered, as if he were adding up accounts:
“As for you, you are a libertine, a goat, always hanging round the women.”
The shopman, with his hands tucked into his sleeves, smiled maliciously, and, encouraging the guardians of the ancient religion, cried, just like a small boy:
“Th — a — at’s right! Go it!”
One day when the old men were quarreling, Petr Vassilitch slapped his comrade on the face with unexpected swiftness, put him to flight, and, wiping the sweat from his face, called after the fugitive:
“Look out; that sin lies to your account! You led my hand into sin, you accursed one; you ought to be ashamed of yourself!”
He was especially fond of reproaching his comrades in that they were wanting in firm faith, and predicting that they would fall away into “Protestantism.”
“That is what troubles you, Aleksasha — the sound of the cock crowing!”
Protestantism worried and apparently frightened him, but to the question, “What is the doctrine of that sect?” he answered, not very intelligibly:
“Protestantism is the most bitter heresy; it acknowledges reason alone, and denies God! Look at the
Bible Christians, for example, who read nothing but the Bible, which came from a German, from Luther, of whom it was said: He was rightly called Luther, for if you make a verb of it, it runs: Lute bo, lubo luto! 9 And all that comes from the west, from the heretics of that part of the world.”
9 From Lutui which means hard, violent.
Stamping his mutilated foot, he would say coldly and heavily:
“Those are they whom the new Ritualists will have to drive out, whom they will have to watch, — yes, and burn too! But not us — we are of the true faith. Eastern, we are of the faith, the true, eastern, original Russian faith, and all the others are of the west, spoiled by free will! What good has ever come from the Germans, or the French? Look what they did in the year 12 — .”
Carried away by his feelings, he forgot that it was a boy who stood before him, and with his strong hands he took hold of me by the belt, now drawing me to him, now pushing me away, as he spoke beautifully, emotionally, hotly, and youthfully:
“The mind of man wanders in the forest of its own thoughts. Like a fierce wolf it wanders, the devil’s assistant, putting the soul of man, the gift of God, on the rack! What have they imagined, these servants of the devil? The Bogomuili,10 through whom Protestantism came, taught thus: Satan, they say, is the son of God, the elder brother of Jesus Christ, That
10 Another sect of Old Believers. is what they have come to! They taught people also not to obey their superiors, not to work, to abandon wife and children; a man needs nothing, no property whatever in his life; let him live as he chooses, and the devil shows him how. That Aleksasha has turned up here again.”
At this moment the shopman set me to do some work, and I left the old man alone in the gallery, but he went on talking to space:
“O soul without wings! O blind-born kitten, whither shall I run to get away from you?”
And then, with bent head and hands resting on hi? knees, he fell into a long silence, gazing, intent and motionless, up at the gray winter sky.
He began to take more notice of me, and his manner was kinder. When he found me with a book, he would glance over my shoulder, and say:
“Read, youngster, read; it is worth your while I It may be that you are clever; it is a pity that you think so little of your elders. You can stand up to any one, you think, but where will your sauciness land you in the end? It will lead you nowhere, youngster, but to a convict’s prison. Read by all means; but remember that books are books, and use your own brains I Danilov, the founder of the Xlist sect, came to the conclusion that neither old nor new books were necessary, and he put them all in a sack, and threw them in the water. Of course that was a stupid thing to do, but And now that cur, Aleksasha, must come disturbing us.”
He was always talking about this Aleksasha, and one day he came into the shop, looking preoccupied and stem, and explained to the shopman:
“Aleksander Vassiliev is here in the town; he came yesterday. I have been looking for him for a long time, but he has hidden himself somewhere 1”
The shopman answered in an unfriendly tone:
“I don’t know anything about him!”
Bending his head, the old man said:
“That means that for you, people are either buyers or sellers, and nothing more! Let us have some tea.”
When I brought in the big copper tea-pot, there were visitors in the shop. There was old Lukian, smiling happily, and behind the door in a dark corner sat a stranger dressed in a dark overcoat and high felt boots, with a green belt, and a cap set clumsily over his brows. His face was indistinct, but he seemed to be quiet and modest, and he looked somewhat like a shopman who had just lost his place and was very dejected about it.
Petr Vassilich, not glancing in his direction, said something sternly and ponderously, and he pulled at his cap all the time, with a convulsive movement of his right hand. He would raise his hand as if he were about to cross himself, and push his cap upwards, and he would do this until he had pushed it as far back as his crown, when he would again pull it over his brows. That convulsive movement reminded me of the mad beggar, Igosha, “Death in his pocket.”
“Various kinds of reptiles swim in our muddy rivers, and make the water more turbid than ever,” said Petr Vassilich.
The man who resembled a shopman asked quietly and gently:
“Do you mean that for me?”
“And suppose I do mean it for you?”
Then the man asked again, not loudly but very frankly:
“Well, and what have you to say about yourself, man?”
“What I have to say about myself, I say to God — that is my business.”
“No, man, it is mine also,” said the new-comer solemnly and firmly. “Do not turn away your face from the truth, and don’t blind yourself deliberately; that is the great sin towards God and your fellow-creatures!”
I liked to hear him call Petr Vassilich “man,” and his quiet, solemn voice stirred me. He spoke as a good priest reads, “Lord and Master of my life,” and bending forward, got off his chair, spreading his hands before his face:
“Do not judge me; my sins are not more grievous than yours.”
The samovar boiled and hissed, the old valuer spoke contemptuously, and the other continued, refusing to be stopped by his words:
“Only God knows who most befouls the source of the Holy Spirit. It may be your sin, you book-learned, literary people. As for me, I am neither book-learned nor literary; I am a man of simple life.”
“We know all about your simplicity — we have heard of it — more than we want to hear!”
“It is you who confuse the people; you break up the true faith, you scribes and Pharisees. I— what shall I say? Tell me —”
“Heresy,” said Petr Vassilich. The man held his hands before his face, just as if he were reading something written on them, and said warmly: “Do you think that to drive people from one hole to another is to do better than they? But I say no! I say: Let us be free, man! What is the good of a house, a wife, and all your belongings, in the sight of God? Let us free ourselves, man, from all that for the sake of which men fight and tear each other to pieces — from gold and silver and all kinds of property, which brings nothing but corruption and uncleannessi Not on earthly fields is the soul saved, but in the valleys of paradise! Tear yourself away from it all, I say; break all ties, all cords; break the nets of this world. They are woven by antichrist. I am going by the straight road; I do not juggle with my soul; the dark world has no part in me.”
“And bread, water, clothes — do you have any part in them? They are worldly, you know,” said the valuer maliciously.
But these words had no effect on Aleksander. He talked all the more earnestly, and although his voice was so low, it had the sound of a brass trumpet.
“What is dear to you, man? The one God only should be dear to you. I stand before Him, cleansed from every stain. Remove the ways of earth from your heart and see God; you alone — He alone! So you will draw near to God; that is the only road to Him. That is the way of salvation — to leave father and mother — to leave all, and even thine eye, if it tempts thee — pluck it out! For God’s sake tear yourself from things and save your soul; take refuge in the spirit, and your soul shall live for ever and ever.”
“Well, it is a case with you, of the dog returning to his vomit,” said Petr Vassiliev, rising, “I should have thought that you would have grown wiser since last year, but you are worse than ever.”
The old man went swaying from the shop onto the terrace, which action disturbed Aleksander. He asked amazedly and hastily:
“Has he gone? But — why?”
Kind Lukian, winking consolingly, said:
“That’s all right — that’s all right!”
Then Aleksander fell upon him:
“And what about you, worldling? You are also sewing rubbishy words, and what do they mean? Well — a threefold alleluia — a double ”
Lukian smiled at him and then went out on the terrace also, and Aleksander, turning to the shopman, said in a tone of conviction:
“They can’t stand up to me, they simply can’t! They disappear like smoke before a flame.”
The shopman looked at him from under his brows, and observed dryly:
“I have not thought about the matter.”
“What! Do you mean you have not thought about it? This is a business which demands to be thought about.”
He sat for a moment in silence, with drooping head. Then the old men called him, and they all three went away.
This man had burst upon me like a bonfire in the night. He burned brightly, and when he was extinguished, left me feeling that there was truth in his refusal to live as other men.
In the evening, choosing a good time, I spoke about him excitedly to the head icon-painter. Quiet and kind Ivan Larionovich listened to what I had to say, and explained:
“He belongs to the Byegouns,11 a sort of sect; they acknowledge no authority.”
11 Byegouns, or wanderers, still another sect of Old Believers.
“How do they live?”
“Like fugitives they wander about the earth; that is why they have been given the name Byegoun. They say that no one ought to have land, or property. And the police look upon them as dangerous, and arrest them.”
Although my life was bitter, I could not understand how any one could run away from everything pleasant. In the life which went on around me at that time, there was much that was interesting and precious to me, and Aleksander Vassiliev soon faded from my mind.
But from time to time, in hours of darkness, he appeared to me. He came by the fields, or by the gray road to the forest, pushed his cap aside with a convulsive movement of his white hands, unsoiled by work, and muttered:
“I am going on the straight road; I have no part in this world; I have broken all ties.”
In conjunction with him I remembered my father, as grandmother had seen him in her dream, with a walnut stick in his hand, and behind him a spotted dog running, with its tongue hanging out.
Last updated Monday, December 22, 2014 at 10:50