One evening I was sauntering along a soft, grey, dusty track between two breast-high walls of grain. So narrow was the track that here and there tar-besmeared cars were lying — tangled, broken, and crushed — in the ruts of the cartway.
Field mice squeaked as a heavy car first swayed — then bent forwards towards the sun-baked earth. A number of martins and swallows were flitting in the sky, and constituting a sign of the immediate proximity of dwellings and a river; though for the moment, as my eyes roved over the sea of gold, they encountered naught beyond a belfry rising to heaven like a ship’s mast, and some trees which from afar looked like the dark sails of a ship. Yes, there was nothing else to be seen save the brocaded, undulating steppe where gently it sloped away south-westwards. And as was the earth’s outward appearance, so was that of the sky — equally peaceful.
Invariably, the steppe makes one feel like a fly on a platter. Invariably, it inclines one to believe, when the centre of the expanse is reached, that the earth lies within the compass of the sky, with the sun embracing it, and the stars hemming it about as, half-blinded, they stare at the sun’s beauty.
Presently the sun’s huge, rosy-red disk impinged upon the blue shadows of the horizon before preparing to sink into a snow-white cloud-bank; and as it did so it bathed the ears of grain around me in radiance and caused the cornflowers to seem the darker by comparison; and the stillness, the herald of night, to accentuate more than ever the burden of the earth’s song.
Fanwise then spread the ruddy beams over the firmament; and, in so doing, they cast upon my breast a shaft of light like Moses’ rod, and awoke therein a flood of calm, but ardent, sentiments which set me longing to embrace all the evening world, and to pour into its ear great, eloquent, and never previously voiced, utterances.
Now, too, the firmament began to spangle itself with stars; and since the earth is equally a star, and is peopled with humankind, I found myself longing to traverse every road throughout the universe, and to behold, dispassionately, all the joys and sorrows of life, and to join my fellows in drinking honey mixed with gall.
Yet also there was upon me a feeling of hunger, for not since the morning had my wallet contained a morsel of food. Which circumstance hindered the process of thought, and intermittently vexed me with the reflection that, rich though is the earth, and much thence though humanity has won by labour, a man may yet be forced to walk hungry . . . .
Suddenly the track swerved to the right, and as the walls of grain opened out before me, there lay revealed a steppe valley, with, flowing at its bottom, a blue rivulet, and spanning the rivulet, a newly-constructed bridge which, with its reflection in the water, looked as yellow as though fashioned of rope. On the further side of the rivulet some seven white huts lay pressed against a small declivity that was crowned with a cattle-fold, and amid the silver-grey trunks of some tall black poplars whose shadows, where they fell upon the hamlet, seemed as soft as down a knee-haltered horse, was stumping with swishing tail. And though the air, redolent of smoke and tar and hemp ensilage, was filled with the sounds of poultry cackling and a baby crying during the process of being put to bed, the hubbub in no way served to dispel the illusion that everything in the valley was but part of a sketch executed by an artistic hand, and cast in soft tints which the sun had since caused, in some measure, to fade.
In the centre of the semi-circle of huts there stood a brick- kiln, and next to it, a high, narrow red chapel which resembled a one-eyed watchman. And as I stood gazing at the scene in general, a crane stooped with a faint and raucous cry, and a woman who had come out to draw water looked as though, as she raised bare arms to stretch herself upwards — cloud-like, and white-robed from head to foot — she were about to float away altogether.
Also, near the brick-kiln there lay a patch of black mud in the glistening, crumpled-velvet blue substance of which two urchins of five and three were, breechless, and naked from the waist upwards, kneading yellow feet amid a silence as absorbed as though their one desire in life had been to impregnate the mud with the red radiance of the sun. And so much did this laudable task interest me, and engage my sympathy and attention, that I stopped to watch the strapping youngsters, seeing that even in mire the sun has a rightful place, for the reason that the deeper the sunlight’s penetration of the soil, the better does that soil become, and the greater the benefit to the people dwelling on its surface.
Viewed from above, the scene lay, as it were, in the palm of one’s hand. True, by no manner of means could such lowly farm cots provide me with a job, but at least should I, for that evening, be able to enjoy the luxury of a chat with the cots’ kindly inhabitants. Hence, with, in my mind, a base and mischievous inclination to retail to those inhabitants tales of the marvellous kind of which I knew them to stand wellnigh as much in need as of bread, I resumed my way, and approached the bridge.
As I did so, there arose from the ground-level an animated clod of earth in the shape of a sturdy individual. Unwashed and unshaven, he had hanging on his frame an open canvas shirt, grey with dust, and baggy blue breeches.
“Good evening,” I said to the fellow.
“I wish you the same,” he replied. “Whither are you bound?”
“First of all, what is the name of this river?”
“What is its name? Why, it is the Sagaidak, of course.”
On the man’s large, round head there was a shock of bristling, grizzled curls, while pendent to the moustache below it were ends like those of the moustache of a Chinaman. Also, as his small eyes scanned me with an air of impudent distrust, I could detect that they were engaged in counting the holes and dams in my raiment. Only after a long interval did he draw a deep breath as from his pocket he produced a clay pipe with a cane mouthpiece, and, knitting his brows attentively, fell to peering into the pipe’s black bowl. Then he said:
“Have you matches?”
I replied in the affirmative.
“And some tobacco?”
For awhile he continued to contemplate the sun where that luminary hung suspended above a cloud-bank before finally declining. Then he remarked:
“Give me a pinch of the tobacco. As for matches, I have some.”
So both of us lit up; after which he rested his elbows upon the balustrade of the bridge, leant back against the central stanchions, and for some time continued merely to emit and inhale blue coils of smoke. Then his nose wrinkled, and he expectorated.
“Muscovite tobacco is it?” he inquired.
“No — Roman, Italian.”
“Oh!” And as the wrinkles of his nose straightened themselves again he added: “Then of course it is good tobacco.”
To enter a dwelling in advance of one’s host is a breach of decorum; wherefore, I found myself forced to remain standing where I was until my interlocutor’s tale of questions as to my precise identity, my exact place of origin, my true destination, and my real reasons for travelling should tardily win its way to a finish. Greatly the process vexed me, for I was eager, rather, to learn what the steppe settlement might have in store for my delectation.
“Work?” the fellow drawled through his teeth. “Oh no, there is no work to be got here. How could there be at this season of the year?”
Turning aside, he spat into the rivulet.
On the further bank of the latter, a goose was strutting importantly at the head of a string of round, fluffy, yellow goslings, whilst driving the brood were two little girls — the one a child but little larger than the goose itself, dressed in a red frock, and armed with a switch; and the other one a youngster absolutely of a size with the bird, pale of feature, plump of body, bowed of leg, and grave of expression.
“Ufim!” came at this moment in the strident voice of a woman unseen, but incensed; upon which my companion bestowed upon me a sidelong nod, and muttered with an air of appreciation:
“THERE’S lungs for you!”
Whereafter, he fell to twitching the toes of a chafed and blackened foot, and to gazing at their nails. His next question was:
“Are you, maybe, a scholar?”
“Why do you ask?”
“Because, if you are, you might like to read the Book over a corpse.”
And so proud, apparently, was he of the proposal that a faint smile crossed his flaccid countenance.
“You see, it would be work,” he added with his brown eyes veiled, “whilst, in addition, you would be paid ten kopecks for your trouble, and allowed to keep the shroud.”
“And should also be given some supper, I suppose?”
“Yes — and should also be given some supper.”
“Where is the corpse lying?”
“In my own hut. Shall we go there?”
Off we set. En route we heard once more a strident shout of:
As we proceeded, shadows of trees glided along the soft road to meet us, while behind a clump of bushes on the further bank of the rivulet some children were shouting at their play. Thus, what with the children’s voices, and the purling of the water, and the noise of someone planing a piece of wood, the air seemed full of tremulous, suspended sound. Meanwhile, my host said to me with a drawl:
“Once we did have a reader here. An old woman she was, a regular old witch who at last had to be removed to the town for amputation of the feet. They might well have cut off her tongue too whilst they were about it, since, though useful enough, she could rail indeed!”
Presently a black puppy, a creature of about the size of a toad, came ambling, three-legged fashion, under our feet. Upon that it stiffened its tail, growled, and snuffed the air with its tiny pink nose.
Next there popped up from somewhere or another a barefooted young woman. Clapping her hands, she bawled:
“Here, you Ufim, how I have been calling for you, and calling for you!”
“Eh? Well, I never heard you.”
“Where were you, then?”
By way of reply, my conductor silently pointed in my direction with the stem of his pipe. Then he led me into the forecourt of the hut next to the one whence the young woman had issued, whilst she proceeded to project fresh volleys of abuse, and fresh expressions of accentuated non-amiability.
In the little doorway of the dwelling next to hers, we found seated two old women. One of them was as rotund and dishevelled as a battered, leathern ball, and the other one was a woman bony and crooked of back, swarthy of skin, and irritable of feature. At the women’s feet lay, lolling out a rag-like tongue, a shaggy dog which, red and pathetic of eye, could boast of a frame nearly as large as a sheep’s.
First of all, Ufim related in detail how he had fallen in with myself. Then he stated the purpose for which he conceived it was possible that I might prove useful. And all the time that he was speaking, two pairs of eyes contemplated him in silence; until, on the completion of his recital, one of the old women gave a jerk to a thin, dark neck, and the other old dame invited me to take a seat whilst she prepared some supper.
Amid the tangled herbage of the forecourt, a spot overgrown with mallow and bramble shoots, there was standing a cart which, lacking wheels, had its axle-points dark with mildew. Presently a herd of cattle was driven past the hut, and over the hamlet there seemed to arise, drift, and float, a perfect wave of sound. Also, as evening descended, I could see an ever-increasing number of grey shadows come creeping forth from the forecourt’s recesses, and overlaying and darkening the turf.
“One day all of us must die,” remarked Ufim, with empressement as he tapped the bowl of his pipe against a wall.
The next moment the barefooted, red-cheeked young woman showed herself at the gate, and asked in tones rather less vehement than recently:
“Are you coming, or are you not?”
“Presently,” replied Ufim. “One thing at a time.”
For supper I was given a hunch of bread and a bowl of milk; whereupon the dog rose, laid its aged, slobbering muzzle upon my knee, and gazed into my face with its dim eyes as though it were saying, “May I too have a bite?”
Next, like an eventide breeze among withered herbage, there floated across the forecourt the hoarse voice of the crook-backed old woman.
“Let us pray,” she said. “Oh God, take away from us all sorrow, and receive therefore requitement in twofold measure!”
As she recited the prayer with a mien as dark as fate, the supplicant rolled her long neck from side to side, and nodded her ophidian-shaped head in accordance with a sort of regular, lethargic rhythm. Next I heard sink to earth, at my feet, some senile words uttered in a sort of singsong.
“Some folk need work just as much as they wish, and others need do no work at all. Yet OUR folk have to work beyond their strength, and to work without any recompense for the toil which they undergo.”
Upon this the smaller of the old crones whispered:
“But the Mother of God will recompense them. She recompenses everyone.”
Then a dead silence fell — a weighty silence, a silence seemingly fraught with matters of import, and inspiring in one an assurance that presently there would be brought forth impressive reflections — there would reach the ear words of mark.
“I may tell you,” at length the crook-backed old woman remarked as she attempted to straighten herself, “that though my husband was not without enemies, he also had a particular friend named Andrei, and that when failing strength was beginning to make life difficult for us in our old home on the Don, and folk took to reviling and girding at my husband, Andrei came to us one day, and said: ‘Yakov, let not your hands fail you, for the earth is large, and in all parts has been given to men for their use. If folk be cruel, they are so through stupidity and prejudice, and must not be judged for being so. Live your own life. Let theirs be theirs, and yours yours, so that, dwelling in peace, while yielding to none, you shall in time overcome them all.’”
“That is what Vasil too used to say. He used to say: ‘Let theirs be theirs, and ours ours.’”
“Aye, never a good word dies, but, wheresoever it be uttered, flies thence through the world like a swallow.”
Ufim corroborated this with a nod.
“True indeed!” he remarked. “Though also it has been said that a good word is Christ’s, and a bad word the priest’s.”
One of the old women shook her head vigorously at this, and croaked:
“The badness lies not in any word of a priest, but in what you yourself have just said. You are greyheaded, Ufim, yet often you speak without thought.”
Presently Ufim’s wife reappeared, and, waving her hands as though she were brandishing a sieve, began to vent renewed volleys of virulent abuse.
“My God,” she cried, “what sort of a man is that? Why, a man who neither speaks nor listens, but for ever keeps baying at the moon like a dog!”
“NOW she’s started!” Ufim drawled.
Westward there were arising, and soaring skyward, clouds of such a similarity to blue smoke and blood-red flame that the steppe seemed almost to be in danger of catching fire thence. Meanwhile a soft evening breeze was caressing the expanse as a whole, and causing the grain to bend drowsily earthward as golden-red ripples skimmed its surface. Only in the eastern quarter whence night’s black, sultry shadow was stealthily creeping in our direction had darkness yet descended.
At intervals there came vented from the window above my head the hot odour of a dead body; and, whenever that happened, the dog’s grey nostrils and muzzle would quiver, and its eyes would blink pitifully as it gazed aloft. Glancing at the heavens, Ufim remarked with conviction:
“There will be no rain tonight.”
“Do you keep such a thing as a Psalter here?” I inquired.
“Such a thing as a what?”
“As a Psalter — a book?”
No answer followed.
Faster and faster the southern night went on descending, and wiping the land clean of heat, as though that heat had been dust. Upon me there came a feeling that I should like to go and bury myself in some sweet-smelling hay, and sleep there until sunrise.
“Maybe Panek has one of those things?” hazarded Ufim after a long pause. “At any rate he has dealings with the Molokans.”
After that, the company held further converse in whispers. Then all save the more rotund of the old women left the forecourt, while its remaining occupant said to me with a sigh:
“You may come and look at him if you wish.”
Small and gentle looked the woman’s meekly lowered head as, folding her hands across her breast, she added in a whisper:
“Oh purest Mother of God! Oh Thou of spotless chastity!”
In contrast to her expression, that on the face of the dead man was stem and, as it were, fraught with importance where thick grey eyebrows lay parted over a large nose, and the latter curved downwards towards a moustache which divided introspective, partially closed eyes from a mouth that was set half-open. Indeed, it was as though the man were pondering something of annoyance, so that presently he would make shift to deliver himself of a final and urgent injunction. The blue smoke of a meagre candle quivered meanwhile, over his head, though the wick diffused so feeble a light that the death blurs under the eyes and in the cheek furrows lay uneffaced, and the dark hands and wrists, disposed, lumplike, on the front of the greyish-blue shroud, seemed to have had their fingers twisted in a manner which even death had failed to rectify. And ever and anon, streaming from door to window, came a draught variously fraught with the odours of wormwood, mint, and corruption.
Presently the old woman’s whispering grew more animated and intelligible, while constantly, amid the wheezed mutterings, sheet lightning cut the black square of the window space with menacing flashes, and seemed, with their blue glare, as it shot through the tomblike hut, to cause the candle’s flickering flame to undergo a temporary extinction, a temporary withdrawal, and the grey bristles on the dead man’s face to gleam like the scales of a fish, and his features to gather themselves into a grim frown. Meanwhile, like a stream of cold, bitter water dripping upon my breast, the old woman’s whispered soliloquy maintained its uninterrupted flow.
At length there recurred, somehow, to my mind the words which, impressive though they be, never can assuage sorrow — the words:
“Weep not for me, Martha, nor gaze into the tomb, for, lo, I am risen!”
Nay, and never would THIS man rise again . . . .
Presently the bony old woman returned with a report that nowhere among the huts could a Psalter be found, but only a book of another kind. Would it do?
The other book turned out to be a grammar of the Church Slavonic dialect, with the first pages torn out, and beginning with the words, “Drug, drugi, druzhe.” [“A friend, of a friend, O friend.”]
“What, then, are we to do? “ vexedly asked the smaller of the dames when I had explained to her that a grammar could work no benefit to a corpse. As she put the query, her small, childlike face quivered with disappointment, and her eyes swelled and overflowed with tears.
“My man has lived his life,” she said with a sob, “and now he cannot even be given proper burial! ”
And, similarly, when next I offered to recite over her husband each and every prayer and psalm that I could contrive to recall to my recollection, on condition that all present should meanwhile leave the hut (for I felt that, since the task would be one novel to me, the attendance of auditors might hinder me from mustering my entire stock of petitions), she so disbelieved me, or failed to understand me, that for long enough she could only stand tottering in the doorway as, with twitching nose, she drew her sleeve across her worn, diminutive features.
Nevertheless she did, at last, take her departure.
Low over the steppe, stray flashes of summer lightning still gleamed against the jet black sky as they flooded the hut with their lurid shimmer; and each time that the darkness of the sultry night swept back into the room, the candle flickered, and the corpse’s prone figure seemed to open its half-closed eyes and glance at the shadows which palpitated on its breast, and danced over the white walls and ceiling.
Similarly did I glance from time to time at HIM, yet glance with a guarded eye, and with a feeling in me that when a corpse is present anything may happen; until finally I rallied conscience to my aid, and recited under my breath:
“Pardon Thou all who have sinned, whether they be men, or whether they, being not men, do yet stand higher than the beasts of the field.”
However, the only result of the recitation was to bring to my mind a thought directly at variance with the import of the words, the thought that “it is not sin that is hard and bitter to ensue, but righteousness.”
“Sins wilful and of ignorance,” I continued. “Sins known and unknown. Sins committed through imprudence and evil example. Sins committed through forwardness and sloth.”
“Though to YOU, brother,” mentally I added to the corpse, “none of this, of course, applies.”
Again, glancing at the blue stars, where they hung glittering in the fathomless obscurity of the sky, I reflected:
“Who in this house is looking at them save myself?”
Presently, with a pattering of claws over the beaten clay of the floor, there entered the dog. Once or twice it paced the length of the room. Then, with a sniff at my legs, and a grumble to itself, it departed as it had come. Perhaps the creature felt too old to bay a dirge to its master after the manner of its kind. In any case, as it vanished through the doorway, the shadows —— so I fancied — sought to slip out after it, and, floating in that direction, fanned my face with a breath as of ice, while the flame of the candle flickered the more — as though it too were seeking to wrest itself from the candlestick, and go floating upwards to join the band of stars — a band of luminaries which it might well have deemed to be of a brilliance as small and as pitiful as its own. And I, for my part, since I had no wish to see what light there was disappear, followed the struggles of the tiny flame with a tense anxiety which made my eyes ache. Oppressed and uneasy all over as I stood by the dead man’s shoulder, I strained my ears and listened, listened ever, to the silence encompassing the hut.
Eventually, drowsiness began to steal over me, and proved a feeling hard to resist. Yet still with an effort did I contrive to recall the beautiful prayers of Saints Makari Veliki, Chrysostom, and Damarkin, while at the same time something resembling a swarm of mosquitos started to hum in my head, the words wherein the Sixth Precept issues its injunction to: “ all persons about to withdraw to a couch of rest.”
And next, to escape falling asleep, I fell to reciting the kondak [Hymn for the end of the day] which begins:
“Oh Lord, refresh my soul thus grievously made feeble with wrong doing.”
Still engaged in this manner, suddenly I heard something rustle outside the door. Then a dry whisper articulated:
“Oh God of Mercy, receive unto Thyself also my soul!”
Upon that, the fancy occurred to me that probably the old woman’s soul was as grey and timid as a linnet, and that when it should fly up to the throne of the Mother of God, and the Mother should extend to that little soul her tender, white, and gracious hand, the newcomer would tremble all over, and flutter her gentle wings until well nigh death should supervene.
And then the Mother of God would say to Her Son:
“Son, pray see the fearfulness of Thy people on earth, and their estrangement from joy! Oh Son, is that well?”
And He would make answer to Her —
He would make answer to Her, and say I know not what.
And suddenly, so I fancied, a voice answered mine out of the brooding hush, as though it too were reciting a prayer. Yet so complete, so profound, was the stillness, that the voice seemed far away, submerged, unreal — a mere phantom of an echo, of the echo of my own voice. Until, on my desisting from my recital, and straining my cars yet more, the sound seemed to approach and grow clearer as shuffling footsteps also advanced in my direction, and there came a mutter of:
“Nay, it CANNOT be so!”
“Why is it that the dogs have failed to bark?” I reflected, rubbing my eyes, and fancying as I did so that the dead man’s eyebrows twitched, and his moustache stirred in a grim smile.
Presently a deep, hoarse, rasping voice vociferated in the forecourt:
“What do you say, old woman? Yes, that he must die — I knew all along — so you can cease your chattering? Men like him keep up to the last, then lay them down to rise to more . . . WHO is with him? A stranger? A-ah!”
And, the next moment, a bulk so large and shapeless that it might well have been the darkness of the night embodied, stumbled against the outer side of the door, grunted, hiccuped, and lurching head foremost into the hut, grew wellnigh to the ceiling. Then it waved a gigantic hand, crossed itself in the direction of the candle, and, bending forward until its forehead almost touched the feet of the corpse, queried under its breath:
“How now, Vasil?”
Thereafter, the figure vented a sob whilst a strong smell of vodka arose in the room, and from the doorway the old woman said in an appealing voice:
“Pray give HIM the book, Father Demid.”
“No indeed! Why should I? I intend to do the reading myself.”
And a heavy hand laid itself upon my shoulder, while a great hairy face bent over mine, and inquired:
“A young man, are you not? A member of the clergy, too, I suppose?”
So covered with tufts of auburn hair was the enormous head above me — tufts the sheen of which even the semi-obscurity of the pale candlelight failed to render inconspicuous — that the mass, as a whole, resembled a mop. And as its owner lurched to and fro, he made me lurch responsively by now drawing me towards himself, now thrusting me away. Meanwhile he continued to suffuse my face with the hot, thick odour of spirituous liquor.
“Father Demid!” again essayed the old woman with an imploring wail, but he cut her short with the menacing admonition:
“How often have I told you that you must not address a deacon as ‘Father’? Go to bed! Yes, be off with you, and let me mind my affairs myself! GO, I say! But first light me another candle, for I cannot see a single thing in front of me.”
With which, throwing himself upon a bench, the deacon slapped his knee with a book which he had in his hands, and put to me the query:
“Should you care to have a dram of gorielka? [Another name for vodka.]
“No,” I replied. “At all events, not here.”
“Indeed?” the deacon cried, unabashed. “But come, a bottle of the stuff is here, in my very pocket.”
“This is no place in which to be drinking.”
For a moment the deacon said nothing. Then he muttered:
“True, true. So let us adjourn to the forecourt. . . . Yes, what you say is no more than the truth.”
“Had you not better remain seated where you are, and begin the reading? ”
“No, I am going to do no such thing. YOU shall do the reading. Tonight I, I— well I am not very well, for I have been drinking a little.”
And, thrusting the book into my stomach, he sank his head upon his breast, and fell to swaying it ponderously up and down.
“Folk die,” was his next utterance, “and the world remains as full of grief as ever. Yes, folk die even before they have seen a little good accrue to themselves.”
“I see that your book is not a Psalter,” here I interposed after an inspection of the volume.
“You are wrong.”
“Then look for yourself.”
He grabbed the book by its cover, and, by dint of holding the candle close to its pages, discovered, eventually, that matters were as I had stated.
This took him aback completely.
“What can the fact mean?” he exclaimed. “Oh, I know what has happened. The mistake has come of my being in such a hurry. The other book, the true Psalter, is a fat, heavy volume, whereas this one is —”
For a moment he seemed sobered by the shock. At all events, he rose and, approaching the corpse, said, as he bent over the bed with his beard held back:
“Pardon me, Vasil, but what is to be done?”
Then he straightened himself again, threw back his curls, and, drawing a bottle from his pocket, and thrusting the neck of the bottle into his mouth, took a long draught, with a whistling of his nostrils as he did so.
“Well?” I said.
“Well, I intend to go to bed — my idea is to drink and enjoy myself awhile.”
“And what of the reading?”
“Who would wish you to mumble words which you would not be comprehending as you uttered them?”
The deacon reseated himself upon the bench, leaned forward, buried his face in his hands and remained silent.
Fast the July night was waning. Fast its shadows were dissolving into corners, and allowing a whiff of fresh dewy morningtide to enter at the window. Already was the combined light of the two candles growing paler, with their flames looking like the eyes of a frightened child.
“You have lived your life, Vasi,” at length the deacon muttered, “and though once I had a place to which to resort, now I shall have none. Yes, my last friend is dead. Oh Lord — where is Thy justice?”
For myself, I went and took a seat by the window, and, thrusting my head into the open air, lit a pipe, and continued to listen with a shiver to the deacon’s wailings.
“Folk used to gird at my wife,” he went on, “and now they are gnawing at me as pigs might gnaw at a cabbage. That is so, Vasil. Yes that is so.”
Again the bottle made its appearance. Again the deacon took a draught. Again he wiped his beard. Then he bent over the dead man once more, and kissed the corpse’s forehead.
“Good-bye, friend of mine!” he said. Then to myself he added with unlooked-for clarity and vigour:
“My friend here was but a plain man — a man as inconspicuous among his fellows as a rook among a flock of rooks. Yet no rook was he. Rather, he was a snow-white dove, though none but I realised the fact. And now he has been withdrawn from the ‘grievous bondage of Pharaoh.’ Only I am left. Verily, after my passing, shall my soul torment and vomit spittle upon his adversaries!”
“Have you known much sorrow?”
The deacon did not reply at once. When he did so he said dully:
“All of us have known much sorrow. In some cases we have known more than was rightfully our due. I certainly, have known much. But go to sleep, for only in sleep do we recover what is ours.”
And he added as he tripped over his own feet, and lurched heavily against me:
“I have a longing to sing something. Yet I feel that I had best not, for song at such an hour awakens folk, and starts them bawling . . . But beyond all things would I gladly sing.”
With which he buzzed into my ear:
“To whom shall I sing of my grief?
To whom resort for relief?
To the One in whose ha-a-and —”
At this point the sharp bristles of his beard so tickled my neck as to cause me to edge further away.
“You do not like me?” he queried. “Then go to sleep, and to the devil too!”
“It was your beard that was tickling me.”
“Indeed? Ought I to have shaved for your benefit before I came?”
He reflected awhile — then subsided on to the floor with a sniff and an angry exclamation of:
“Read, you, whilst I sleep. And see to it that you do not make off with the book, for it belongs to the church, and is very valuable. Yes. I know you hard-ups! Why do you go roaming about as you do — what is it you hope to gain by your tramping? . . . However, tramp as much as you like. Yes, be off, and tell people that a deacon has come by misfortune, and is in need of some good person to take pity upon his plight. . . . Diomid Kubasov my name is — that of a man lost beyond recall.”
With which he fell asleep. Opening the book at random, I read the words:
“A land unapportioned that shall produce a nourisher of humanity, a being that shall put forth the bounty of his hand to feed every creature.”
“A nourisher of humanity.” Before my eyes that “nourisher” lay outspread, a nourisher overlaid with dry and fragrant herbage. And as I gazed, in the haze of a vision, upon that nourisher’s dark and enigmatical face, I saw also the thousands of men who have seamed this earth with furrows, to the end that dead things should become things of life. And in particular, there uprose before me a picture strange indeed. In that picture I saw marching over the steppe, where the expanse lay bare and void — yes, marching in circles that increasingly embraced a widening area — a gigantic, thousand-handed being in whose train the dead steppe gathered unto itself vitality, and became swathed in juicy, waving verdure, and studded with towns and villages. And ever, as the being receded further and further into the distance, could I see him sowing with tireless hands that which had in it life, and was part of himself, and human as, with thoughts intent upon the benefiting of humanity, he summoned all men to put forth the mysterious force that is in them, and thus to conquer death, and eternally and invincibly to convert, dead things into things of life, while traversing in company the road of death towards that which has no knowledge of death, and ensuring that, in swallowing up mankind, the jaws of death should not close upon death’s victims.
And this caused my heart to beat with emotions the pulsing wings of which at once gladdened me, and cooled my fervour . . . And how greatly, at that moment, did I feel the need of someone able to respond to my questions without passion, yet with truth, and in the language of simplicity! For beside me there lay but a man dead and a man drunken, while without the threshold there was stationed one who had far outlived her span of years. No matter, however. If not today, then tomorrow, should I find a fellow- creature with whom my soul might commune.
Mentally I left the hut, and passed on to the steppe, that I might contemplate thence the little dwelling in which alone, though lost amid the earth’s immensity, the windows were not blind and black as in its fellow huts, but showed, burning over the head of a dead human being, the fire which humanity had conquered for humanity’s benefit.
And that heart which had ceased to beat in the dead man — had everything conceived in life by that heart found due expression in a world poverty, stricken of heart-conceived ideas? I knew that the man just passed away had been but a plain and insignificant mortal, yet as I reflected upon even the little that he had done, his labour loomed before me as greater than prowess of larger magnitude. Yes, to my mind there recurred the immature, battered ears of corn lying in the ruts of the steppe track, the swallows traversing the blue sky above the golden, brocaded grain, the kite hovering in the void over the landscape’s vast periphery. . . . .
And along with these thoughts, there struck upon my ears a whistling of pinions as the shadow of a bird flitted across the brilliant, dew-bespangled green of the forecourt, and five cocks crowed in succession, and a flock of geese announced the fact of their awakening, and a cow lowed, and the gate of the cattle-pen creaked.
And with that I fell to thinking how I should like really to go out on to the steppe, and there to fall asleep under a warm, dry bank.
As for the deacon, he was still slumbering at my feet — slumbering with his breast, the breast of a prize-fighter, turned uppermost, and his fine, golden shock of hair falling like a nimbus around his head, and hot, fat, flushed red features and gaping mouth and ceaselessly twitching moustache. In passing, I had noticed that his hands were long, and that they were set upon shovel-shaped wrists.
Next I found myself imagining the scene as the powerful figure of this man embraced a woman. Probably her face would become lost to sight in his beard, until nothing of her features remained visible. Then, when the beard began to tickle her, she would throw back her head, and laugh. And the children that such a man might have begotten!
All this only made it the more painful and disagreeable to me to reflect that the breast of a human being of such a type should be bearing a burden of sorrow. Surely naught but joy should have been present therein!
Meanwhile, the old woman’s gentle face was still peering at me through the doorway, and presently the first beam of sunlight came glancing through the window-space. Above the rivulet’s silky glimmer, a transparent mist lay steaming, while trees and herbage alike were passing through that curiously inert stage when at any moment (so one fancied) they might give themselves a shake, and burst into song, and in keys intelligible to the soul alone, set forth the wondrous mystery of their existence.
“What a good man he is!” the old woman whispered plaintively as she gazed at the deacon’s gigantic frame. Whereafter, as though reading aloud from a book invisible to my sight, she proceeded quietly and simply to relate the story of his wife.
“You see,” she went on “his lady committed a certain sin with a certain man; and folk remarked this, and, after setting the husband on to the couple, derided him — yes, him, our Demid! — for the reason that he persisted in forgiving the woman her fault. At length the jeers made her take to her room and him to liquor, and for two years past he has been drinking, and soon is going to be deprived of his office. One who scarcely drank at all, my poor husband, used to say: ‘Ah, Demid, yield not to these folk, but live your own life, and let theirs be theirs, and yours, yours.’”
With the words, tears welled from the old woman’s dim, small eyes, and became merged with the folds and wrinkles on her grief- stained cheeks. And in the presence of that little head, a head shaking like a dead leaf in the autumn time, and of those kindly features so worn with age and sorrow, my eyes fell, and I felt smitten with shame to find that, on searching my soul for at least a word of consolation to offer to the poor fellow-mortal before me, I could discover none that seemed suitable.
But at length there recurred to my mind some strange words which I had encountered in I know not what antique volume — words which ran:
“Let not the servants of the Gods lament but, rather, rejoice, in that weeping and lamentation grieve both the Gods and mankind.”
Thereafter, I muttered confusedly:
“It is time that I was going.”
“What?” was her hasty exclamation, an exclamation uttered as though the words had affrighted her. Whereafter, with quivering lips, she began hesitantly and uncertainly to fumble in her bodice.
“No, I have no need of money,” I interposed. “Only, if you should be so willing, give me a piece of bread.”
“You have no need of money? “ she re-echoed dubiously.
“No, none. For that matter, of what use could it be to me?”
“Well, well!” she said after a thoughtful pause. “Then be it as you wish, and — and I thank you.”
The sun, as he rose and ascended towards the blue of the firmament, was spreading over the earth a braggart, peacock-like tail of beams. And as he did so, I winked at him, for by experience I knew that some two hours later his smiles would be scorching me with fire. Yet for the time being he and I had no fault to find with one another. Wherefore, I set myself to search for a bank whence I might sing to him, as to the Lord of Life:
Oh Thou of intangible substance,
Reveal now that substance to me!
Enwrap me within the great vestment
Of light which encompasseth Thee!
That with Thy uprising, my substance
May Come all-prevailing to be!
“Let us live our lives unto ourselves. Let theirs be theirs, and ours, ours.”
This web edition published by:
The University of Adelaide Library
University of Adelaide
South Australia 5005
Last updated Monday, December 22, 2014 at 10:50