THE icon-painting workshop occupied two rooms in a large house partly built of stone. One room had three windows overlooking the yard and one overlooking the garden; the other room had one window overlooking the garden and another facing the street. These windows were small and square, and their panes, irisated by age, unwillingly admitted the pale, diffused light of the winter days. Both rooms were closely packed with tables, and at every table sat the bent figures of icon-painters. From the ceilings were suspended glass balls full of water, which reflected the light from the lamps and threw it upon the square surfaces of the icons in white cold rays.
It was hot and stifling in the workshop. Here worked about twenty men, icon-painters, from Palekh, Kholia, and Mstir. They all sat down in cotton overalls with unfastened collars. They had drawers made of ticking, and were barefooted, or wore sandals. Over their heads stretched, like a blue veil, the smoke of cheap tobacco, and there was a thick smell of size, varnish, and rotten eggs. The melancholy Vlandimirski song flowed slowly, like resin:
How depraved the people have now become;
The boy ruined the girl, and cared not who knew.
They sang other melancholy songs, but this was the one they sang most often. Its long-drawn-out movement did not hinder one from thinking, did not impede the movement of the fine brush, made of weasel hair, over the surface of the icons, as it painted in the lines of the figure, and laid upon the emaciated faces of the saints the fine lines of suffering. By the windows the chaser, Golovev, plied his small hammer. He was a drunken old man with an enormous blue nose. The lazy stream of song was punctuated by the ceaseless dry tap of the hammer; it was like a worm gnawing at a tree. Some evil genius had divided the work into a long series of actions, bereft of beauty and incapable of arousing any love for the business, or interest in it. The squinting joiner, Panphil, ill-natured and malicious, brought the pieces of cypress and lilac — wood of different sizes, which he had planed and glued; the consumptive lad, Davidov, laid the colors on; his comrade, Sorokin, painted in the inscription; Milyashin outlined the design from the original with a pencil; old Golovev gilded it, and embossed the pattern in gold; the finishers drew the land — scape, and the clothes of the figures; and then they were stood with faces or hands against the wall, waiting for the work of the face-painter.
It was very weird to see a large icon intended for an iconastasis, or the doors of the altar, standing against the wall without face, hands, or feet, — just the sacerdotal vestments, or the armor, and the short garments of archangels. These variously painted tablets suggested death. That which should have put life into them was absent, but it seemed as if it had been there, and had miraculously disappeared, leaving only its heavy vestments behind.
When the features had been painted in by the face-painter, the icon was handed to the workman, who filled in the design of the chaser. A different workman had to do the lettering, and the varnish was put on by the head workman himself Ivan Larionovich, a quiet man. He had a gray face; his beard, too, was gray, the hair fine and silky; his gray eyes were peculiarly deep and sad. He had a pleasant smile, but one could not smile at him. He made one feel awkward, somehow. He looked like the image of Simon Stolpnik, just as lean and emaciated, and his motionless eyes looked far away in the same abstracted man — ner, through people and walls.
Some days after I entered the workshop, the banner-worker, a Cossack of the Don, named Kapendiukhin, a handsome, mighty fellow, arrived in a state of intoxication. With clenched teeth and his gentle, wom — anish eyes blinking, he began to smash up everything with his iron fist, without uttering a word. Of medium height and well built, he cast himself on the workroom like a cat chasing rats in a cellar. The others lost their presence of mind, and hid themselves away in the corners, calling out to one another:
“Knock him down!”
The face-painter, Evgen Sitanov, was successful in stunning the maddened creature by hitting him on the head with a small stool. The Cossack subsided on the floor, and was immediately held down and tied up with towels, which he began to bite and tear with the teeth of a wild beast. This infuriated Evgen. He jumped on the table, and with his hands pressed close to his sides, prepared to jump on the Cossack. Tall and stout as he was, he would have inevitably crushed the breast-bone of Kapendiukhin by his leap, but at that moment Larionovich appeared on the scene in cap and overcoat, shook his finger at Sitanov, and said to the workmen in a quiet and business-like tone:
“Carry him into the vestibule, and leave him there till he is sober.”
They dragged the Cossack out of the workshop, set the chairs and tables straight, and once again set to work, letting fall short remarks on the strength of their comrade, prophesying that he would one day be killed by some one in a quarrel.
“It would be a difficult matter to kill him,” said Sitanov very calmly, as if he were speaking of a business which he understood very well.
I looked at Larionovich, wondering perplexedly why these strong, pugilistic people were so easily ruled by him. He showed every one how he ought to work; even the best workmen listened willingly to his advice; he taught Kapendiukhin more, and with more words, than the others.
“ You, Kapendiukhin, are what is called a painter — that is, you ought to paint from life in the Italian manner. Painting in oils requires warm colors, and you have introduced too much white, and made Our Lady’s eyes as cold as winter. The cheeks are painted red, like apples, and the eyes do not seem to belong to them. And they are not put in right, either; one is looking over the bridge of the nose, and the other has moved to the temple; and the face has not come out pure and holy, but crafty, wintry. You don’t think about your work, Kapendiukhin.”
The Cossack listened and made a wry face. Then smiling impudently with his womanish eyes, he said in his pleasant voice, which was rather hoarse with so much drinking:
“Ekh! I— va — a — n Larionovich, my father, that is not my trade. I was born to be a musician, and they put me among monks.”
“With zeal, any business may be mastered.”
“No; what do you take me for? I ought to have been a coachman with a team of gray horses, eh?”
And protruding his Adam’s apple, he drawled despairingly:
“Eh, i-akh, if I had a leash of grayhounds
And dark brown horses,
Och, when I am in torment on frosty nights
I would fly straight, straight to my love!”
Ivan Larionovich, smiling mildly, set his glasses straight on his gray, sad, melancholy nose, and went away. But a dozen voices took up the song in a friendly spirit, and there flowed forth a mighty stream of song which seemed to raise the whole workshop into the air and shake it with measured blows:
“By custom the horses know Where the little lady lives.”
The apprentice, Pashka Odintzov, threw aside his work of pouring off the yolks of the eggs, and holding the shells in his hand, led the chorus in a masterly manner. Intoxicated by the sounds, they all forgot them — selves, they all breathed together as if they had but one bosom, and were full of the same feelings, looking sideways at the Cossack. When he sang, the workshop acknowledged him as its master; they were all drawn to him, followed the brief movements of his hands; he spread his arms out as if he were about to fly. I believe that if he had suddenly broken off his song and cried, “Let us smash up everything,” even the most serious of the workmen would have smashed the workshop to pieces in a few moments.
He sang rarely, but the power of his tumultuous songs was always irresistible and all-conquering. It was as if these people were not very strongly made, and he could lift them up and set them on fire; as if everything was bent when it came within the warm influence of that mighty organ of his.
As for me, these songs aroused in me a hot feeling of envy of the singer, of his admirable power over people. A painful emotion flowed over my heart, making it feel as if it would burst. I wanted to weep and call out to the singers:
“I love you!”
Consumptive, yellow Davidov, who was covered with tufts of hair, also opened his mouth, strangely resembling a young jackdaw newly burst out of the
These happy, riotous songs were only sung when the Cossack started them. More often they sang the sad, drawn-out one about the depraved people, and another about the forests, and another about the death of Alexander I, “How our Alexander went to review his army.” Sometimes at the suggestion of our best face painter, Jikharev, they tried to sing some church melodies, but it was seldom a success. Jikharev always wanted one particular thing; he had only one idea of harmony, and he kept on stopping the song.
He was a man of forty-five, dry, bald, with black, curly, gipsy-like hair, and large black brows which looked like mustaches. His pointed, thick beard was very ornamental to his fine, swarthy, unRussian face, but under his protuberant nose stuck out ferocious-looking mustaches, superfluous when one took his brows into consideration. His blue eyes did not match, the left being noticeably larger than the right.
“Pashka,” he cried in a tenor voice to my comrade, the apprentice, “come along now, start off: Traise — ‘ Now people, listen!”
Wiping his hands on his apron, Pashka led off:
“Pr — a — a — ise — ”
“The Name of the Lord,” several voices caught it up, but Jikharev cried fussily:
“Lower, Evgen! Let your voice come from the very depths of the soul.”
Sitanov, in a voice so deep that it sounded like the rattle of a drum, gave forth:
“R— rabi Gospoda (slaves of the Lord) — ”
“Not like that! That part should be taken in such a way that the earth should tremble and the doors and windows should open of themselves!”
Jikharev was in a state of incomprehensible excitement. His extraordinary brows went up and down on his forehead, his voice broke, his fingers played on an invisible dulcimer.
“Slaves of the Lord — do you understand?” he said importantly. “You have got to feel that right to the kernel of your being, right through the shell. Slaves, praise the Lord! How is it that you — living people — do not understand that?”
“We never seem to get it as you say it ought to be,” said Sitanov quietly.
“Well, let it alone then!”
Jikharev, offended, went on with his work. He was the best workman we had, for he could paint faces in the Byzantine manner, and artistically, in the new Italian style. When he took orders for iconostasis, Larionovich took counsel with him. He had a fine knowledge of all original image-paintings; all the costly copies of miraculous icons, Theodorovski, Kazanski, and others, passed through his hands. But when he lighted upon the originals, he growled loudly:
“These originals tie us down; there is no getting away from that fact.”
In spite of his superior position in the workshop, he was less conceited than the others, and was kind to the apprentices — Pavl and me. He wanted to teach us the work, since no one else ever bothered about us.
He was difficult to understand; he was not usually cheerful, and sometimes he would work for a whole week in silence, like a dumb man. He looked on every one as at strangers who amazed him, as if it were the first time he had come across such people. And although he was very fond of singing, at such times he did not sing, nor did he even listen to the songs. All the others watched him, winking at one another. He would bend over the icon which stood sideways, his tablet on his knees, the middle resting on the edge of the table, while his fine brush diligently painted the dark, foreign face. He was dark and foreign-looking himself. Suddenly he would say in a clear, offended tone:
“Forerunner — what does that mean? Tech means in ancient language ‘to go.’ A forerunner is one who goes before, — and that is all.”
The workshop was very quiet; every one was glancing askance at Jikharev, laughing, and in the stillness rang out these strange words:
“He ought to be painted with a sheepskin and wings.”
“Whom are you talking to?” I asked.
He was silent, either not hearing my question or not caring to answer it. Then his words again fell into the expectant silence:
“The lives of the saints are what we ought to know! What do we know? We live without wings. Where is the soul? The soul — where is it? The originals are there — yes — but where are the souls?”
This thinking aloud caused even Sitanov to laugh derisively, and almost always some one whispered with malicious joy:
“He will get drunk on Saturday.”
Tall, sinewy Sitanov, a youngster of twenty-two years, with a round face without whiskers or eye-brows, gazed sadly and seriously into the corner.
I remember when the copy of the Theodorovski Madonna, which I believe was Kungur, was finished. Jikharev placed the icon on the table and said loudly, excitedly:
“It is finished, Little Mother! Bright Chalice, Thou! Thou, bottomless cup, in which are shed the bitter tears from the hearts of the world of creatures!”
And throwing an overcoat over his shoulders, he went out to the tavern. The young men laughed and whistled, the elder ones looked after him with envious sighs, and Sitanov went to his work. Looking at it attentively, he explained:
“Of course he will go and get drunk, because he is sorry to have to hand over his work. That sort of regret is not given to all.”
Jikharev’s drinking bouts always began on Saturday, and his, you must understand, was not the usual alcoholic fever of the workman. It began thus: In the morning he would write a note and sent Pavl somewhere with it, and before dinner he would say to Larionovich:
“1 am going to the bath today.”
“Will you be long?’
“Well, Lord —”
“Please don’t be gone over Tuesday!”
Jikharev bowed his bald cranium in assent; his brows twitched. When he returned from the baths, he attired himself fashionably in a false shirt-front and a cravat, attached a long silver chain to his satin waistcoat, and went out without speaking, except to say to Pavl and me:
“Clean up the workshop before the evening; wash the large table and scrape it.”
Then a kind of holiday excitement showed itself in every one of them. They braced themselves up. cleaned themselves, ran to the bath, and had supper in a hurry. After supper Jikharev appeared with light refreshments, beer, and wine, and following him came a woman so exaggerated in every respect that she was almost a monstrosity. She was six feet five inches in height. All our chairs and stools looked like toys when she was there, and even tall Sitanov looked undersized beside her. She was well formed, but her bosom rose like a hillock to her chin, and her movements were slow and awkward. She was about forty years of age, but her mobile face, with its great horse-like eyes, was fresh and smooth, and her small mouth looked as if it had been painted on, like that of a cheap doll. She smiled, held out her broad hand to every one, and spoke unnecessary words:
“How do you do? There is a hard frost today. What a stuffy smell there is here! It is the smell of paint. How do you do?”
To look at her, so calm and strong, like a large river at high tide, was pleasant, but her speech had a soporific influence, and was both superfluous and weari — some. Before she uttered a word, she used to puff, making her almost livid cheeks rounder than ever. The young ones giggled, and whispered among themselves:
“She is like an engine!”
“Like a steeple!”
Pursing her lips and folding her hands under her bosom, she sat at the cloth-covered table by the samovar, and looked at us all in turn with a kind expres — sion in her horse-like eyes.
Every one treated her with great respect, and the younger ones were even rather afraid of her. The youths looked at that great body with eager eyes, but when they met her all-embracing glance, they lowered their own eyes in confusion. Jikharev was also respectful to his guest, addressed her as “you,” called her “little comrade,” and pressed hospitality upon her, bowing low the while.
“Now don’t you put yourself out,” she drawled sweetly. “What a fuss you are making of me, really!”
As for herself, she lived without hurry; her arms moved only from the elbow to the wrist, while the elbows themselves were pressed against her sides. From her came an ardent smell, as of hot bread. Old Golovev, stammering in his enthusiasm, praised the beauty of the woman, like a deacon chanting the divine praises; She listened, smiling affably, and when he had become involved in his speech, said of herself:
“We were not a bit handsome when we were young; this has all come through living as a woman. By the time we were thirty, we had become so remarkable that even the nobility interested themselves in us, and one district commander actually promised a carriage with a pair of horses.”
Kapendiukhin, tipsy and dishevelled, looked at her with a glance of hatred, and asked coarsely:
“What did he promise you that for?”
“In return for our love, of course,” explained the guest.
“Love,” muttered Kapendiukhin, “what sort of love?”
“Such a handsome young man as you are must know all about love,” answered the woman simply.
The workshop shook with laughter, and Sitanov growled to Kapendiukhin:
“A fool, if no worse, she is! People only love that way through a great passion, as every one knows.”
He was pale with the wine he had drunk; drops of sweat stood on his temples like pearls; his intelligent eyes burned alarmingly.
But old Golovev, twitching his monstrous nose, wiped the tears from his eyes with his fingers, and asked:
“How many children did you have?”
Over the table hung a lamp; over the stove, another. They gave a feeble light; thick shadows gathered in the corners of the workshop, from which looked half-painted headless figures. The dull, gray patches in place of hands and heads look weird and large, and, as usual, it seemed to me that the bodies of the saints had secretly disappeared from the painted garments. The glass balls, raised right up to the ceiling, hung there on hooks in a cloud of smoke, and gleamed with a blue light.
Jikharev went restlessly round the table, pressing hospitality on every one. His broad, bald skull inclined first to one and then to another, his thin fingers always were on the rriove. He was very thin, and his nose, which was like that of a bird of prey, seemed to have grown sharper; when he stood sideways to the light, the shadow of his nose lay on his cheek.
“Drink and eat, friends,” he said in his ringing tenor.
“Why do you worry yourself, comrade? They all have hands, and every one has his own hands and his own appetite; more than that no one can eat, however much they may want to!”
“Rest yourself, people,” cried Jikharev in a ringing voice. “My friends, we are all the slaves of God; let us sing, Traise His Name.’ ”
The chant was not a success; they were all enervated and stupefied by eating and vodka-drinking. In Kapendiukhin’s hands was a harmonica with a double keyboard; young Victor Salautin, dark and serious as a young crow, took up a drum, and let his fingers wander over the tightly stretched skin, which gave forth a deep sound; the tambourines tinkled.
“The Russian dance!” commanded Jikharev, “little comrade, please.”
“Ach!” sighed the woman, rising, “what a worry you are!”
She v/ent to the space which had been cleared, and stood there solidly, like a sentry. She wore a short brown skirt, a yellow batiste blouse, and a red handkerchief on her head.
The harmonica uttered passionate lamentations; its little bells rang; the tambourines tinkled; the skin of the drum gave forth a heavy, dull, sighing sound. This had an unpleasant effect, as if a man had gone mad and was groaning, sobbing, and knocking his head against the wall.
Jikharev could not dance. He simply moved his feet about, and setting down the heels of his brightly polished boots, jumped about like a goat, and that not in time with the clamorous music. His feet seemed to belong to some one else; his body writhed unbeautifully; he struggled like a wasp in a spider’s web, or a fish in a net. It was not at all a cheerful sight. But all of them, even the tipsy ones, seemed to be impressed by his convulsions; they all watched his face and arms in silence. The changing expressions of his face were amazing. Now he looked kind and rather shy, suddenly he became proud, and frowned harshly; now he seemed to be startled by something, sighed, closed his eyes for a second, and when he opened them, wore a sad expression. Clenching his fists he stole up to the woman, and suddenly stamping his feet, fell on his knees in front of her with arms outspread and raised brows, smiling ardently. She looked down upon him with an affable smile, and said to him calmly:
“Stand up, comrade.”
She tried to close her eyes, but those eyes, which were in circumference like a three copeck piece, would not close, and her face wrinkled and assumed an unpleasant expression.
She could not dance either, and did nothing but move her enormous body from side to side, noiselessly transferring it from place to place. In her left hand was a handkerchief which she waved languidly; her right was placed on her hip. This gave her the appearance of a large pitcher.
And Jikharev moved round this massive woman with so many different changes of expression that he seemed to be ten different men dancing, instead of one. One was quiet and humble, another proud and terrifying; in the third movement he was afraid, sighing gently,, as if he desired to slip away unnoticed from the large, unpleasant woman. But still another person appeared, gnashing his teeth and writhing convulsively like a wounded dog. This sad, ugly dance reminded me of the soldiers, the laundresses, and the cooks, and their vile behavior.
Sitanov’s quiet words stuck in my memory:
“In these affairs every one lies; that’s part of the business. Every one is ashamed; no one loves any one — but it is simply an amusement.”
I did not wish to believe that “every one lied in these affairs.” How about Queen Margot, then? And of course Jikharev was not lying. And I knew that Sitanov had loved a “street” girl, and she had deceived him. He had not beaten her for it, as his comrades advised him to do, but had been kind to her.
The large woman went on rocking, smiling like a corpse, waving her handkerchief. Jikharev jumped convulsively about her, and I looked on and thought: “Could Eve, who was able to deceive God, have been anything like this horse?” I was seized by a feeling of dislike for her.
The faceless images looked from the dark walls; the dark night pressed against the window-panes. The lamps burned dimly in the stuffy workshop; if one listened, one could hear above the heavy trampling and the din of voices the quick dropping of water from the copper wash-basin into the tub.
How unlike this was to the life I read of in books! It was painfully unlike it. At length they all grew weary of this, and Kapendiukhin put the harmonica into Salautin’s hands, and cried:
“Go on! Fire away!”
He danced like Vanka Tzigan, just as if he was swimming in the air. Then Pavl Odintzov and Sorokhin danced passionately and lightly after him. The consumptive Davidov also moved his feet about the floor, and coughed from the dust, smoke, and the strong odor of vodka and smoked sausage, which always smells like tanned hide.
They danced, and sang, and shouted, but each remembered that they were making merry, and gave each other a sort of test — a test of agility and endurance.
Tipsy Sitanov asked first one and then another:
“Do you think any one could really love a woman like that?”
He looked as if he were on the verge of tears.
Larionovich, lifting the sharp bones of his shoulders, answered:
“A woman is a woman — what more do you want?”
The two of whom they spoke disappeared unnoticed. Jikharev reappeared in the workshop in two er three days, went to the bath, and worked for two weeks in his comer, without speaking, pompous and estranged from every one.
“Have they gone?” asked Sitanov of himself, looking round the workshop with sad blue-gray eyes. His face was not handsome, for there was something elderly about it, but his eyes were clear and good. Sit — anov was friendly to me — a fact which I owed to my thick note-book in which I had written poetry. He did not believe in God, but it was hard to understand who in the workshop, beside Larionovich, loved God and believed in Him. They all spoke of Him with levity, derisively, just as they liked to speak of their mistresses. Yet when they dined, or supped, thev all crossed themselves, and when they went to bed, they said their prayers, and went to church on Sundays and feast days.
Sitanov did none of these things, and he was counted as an unbeliever.
“There is no God,” he said.
•“Where did we all come from, then?”
“I don’t know.”
When I asked him how God could possibly not be, he explained:
“Don’t you see that God is height!”
He raised his long arm above his head, then lowered it to an arshin from the floor, and said:
“And man is depth! Is that true? And it is written: Man was created in the image and likeness of God, — as you know! And what is Golovev like?”
This defeated me. The dirty and drunken old man, in spite of his years, was given to an unmentionable sin. I remembered the Viatski soldier, Ermokhin, and grandmother’s sister. Where was God’s likeness in them?
“Human creatures are swine — as you know,” said Sitanov, and then he tried to console me. “Never mind, Maxim, there are good people; there are!”
He was easy to get on with; he was so simple. When he did not know anything, he said frankly:
“I don’t know; I never thought about it!”
This was something unusual. Until I met him, I had only come across people who knew everything and talked about everything. It was strange to me to see in his note-book, side by side with good poetry which touched the soul, many obscene verses which aroused no feeling but that of shame. When I spoke to him about Pushkin, he showed me “Gavrialad,” which had been copied in his book.
“What is Pushkin? Nothing but a jester, but that Benediktov — he is worth paying attention to.”
And closing his eyes he repeated softly:
“Look at the bewitching bosom Of a beautiful woman.”
For some reason he was especially partial to the three lines which he quoted with joyful pride:
“Not even the orbs of an eagle Into that warm cloister can penetrate And read that heart.”
“Do you understand that?”
It was very uncomfortable to me to have to acknowledge that I did not understand what he was so pleased about.
Last updated Monday, December 22, 2014 at 10:50