Whistling from off the sea, the wind was charged with moist, salt spray, and dashing foaming billows ashore with their white manes full of snakelike, gleaming black ribands of seaweed, and causing the rocks to rumble angrily in response, and the trees to rustle with a dry, agitated sound as their tops swayed to and fro, and their trunks bent earthwards as though they would fain reeve up their roots, and betake them whither the mountains stood veiled in a toga of heavy, dark mist.
Over the sea the clouds were hurrying towards the land as ever and anon they rent themselves into strips, and revealed fathomless abysses of blue wherein the autumn sun burned uneasily, and sent cloud-shadows gliding over the puckered waste of waters, until, the shore reached, the wind further harried the masses of vapour towards the sharp flanks of the mountains, and, after drawing them up and down the slopes, relegated them to clefts, and left them steaming there.
There was about the whole scene a louring appearance, an appearance as though everything were contending with everything, as now all things turned sullenly dark, and now all things emitted a dull sheen which almost blinded the eyes. Along the narrow road, a road protected from the sea by a line of wave- washed dykes, some withered leaves of oak and wild cherry were scudding in mutual chase of one another; with the general result that the combined sounds of splashing and rustling and howling came to merge themselves into a single din which issued as a song with a rhythm marked by the measured blows of the waves as they struck the rocks.
“Zmiulan, the King of the Ocean, is abroad!” shouted my fellow traveller in my ear. He was a tall, round-shouldered man of childishly chubby features and boyishly bright, transparent eyes.
“WHO do you say is abroad?” I queried.
Never having heard of the monarch, I made no reply.
The extent to which the wind buffeted us might have led one to suppose that its primary objective was to deflect our steps, and turn them in the direction of the mountains. Indeed, at times its pressure was so strong that we had no choice but to halt, to turn our backs to the sea, and, with feet planted apart, to prise ourselves against our sticks, and so remain, poised on three legs, until we were past any risk of being overwhelmed with the soft incubus of the tempest, and having our coats torn from our shoulders.
At intervals such gasps would come from my companion that he might well have been standing on the drying-board of a bath. Nor, as they did so, was his appearance aught but comical, seeing that his ears, appendages large and shaggy like a dog’s, and indifferently shielded with a shabby old cap, kept being pushed forward by the wind until his small head bore an absurd resemblance to a china bowl. And that, to complete the resemblance, his long and massive nose, a feature grossly disproportionate to the rest of his diminutive face, might equally well have passed for the spout of the receptacle indicated.
Yet a face out of the common it was, like the whole of his personality. And this was the fact which had captivated me from the moment when I had beheld him participating in a vigil service held in the neighbouring church of the monastery of New Athos. There, spare, but with his withered form erect, and his head slightly tilted, he had been gazing at the Crucifix with a radiant smile, and moving his thin lips in a sort of whispered, confidential, friendly conversation with the Saviour. Indeed, so much had the man’s smooth, round features (features as beardless as those of a Skopetz [A member of the Skoptzi, a non-Orthodox sect the members of which “do make of themselves eunuchs for the Lord’s sake.”], save for two bright tufts at the corners of the mouth) been instinct with intimacy, with a consciousness of actually being in the presence of the Son of God, that the spectacle, transcending anything of the kind that my eyes had before beheld, had led me, with its total absence of the customary laboured, servile, pusillanimous attitude towards the Almighty which I had generally found to be the rule, to accord the man my whole interest, and, as long as the service had lasted, to keep an eye upon one who could thus converse with God without rendering Him constant obeisance, or again and again making the sign of the cross, or invariably making it to the accompaniment of groans and tears which had always hitherto obtruded itself upon my notice.
Again had I encountered the man when I had had supper at the workmen’s barraque, and then proceeded to the monastery’s guest- chamber. Seated at a table under a circle of light falling from a lamp suspended from the ceiling, he had gathered around him a knot of pilgrims and their women, and was holding forth in low, cheerful tones that yet had in them the telling, incisive note of the preacher, of the man who frequently converses with his fellow men.
“One thing it may be best always to disclose,” he was saying, “and another thing to conceal. If aught in ourselves seems harmful or senseless, let us put to ourselves the question: ‘Why is this so?’ Contrariwise ought a prudent man never to thrust himself forward and say: ‘How discreet am I!’ while he who makes a parade of his hard lot, and says, ‘Good folk, see ye and hear how bitter my life is,’ also does wrong.”
Here a pilgrim with a black beard, a brigand’s dark eyes, and the wasted features of an ascetic rose from the further side of the table, straightened his virile frame, and said in a dull voice:
“My wife and one of my children were burnt to death through the falling of an oil lamp. On THAT ought I to keep silence?”
No answer followed. Only someone muttered to himself:
“What? Again?”: until the first speaker, the speaker seated near the corner of the table, launched into the oppressive lull the unhesitating reply:
“That of which you speak may be taken to have been a punishment by God for sin.”
“What? For a sin committed by one three years of age (for, indeed, my little son was no more)? The accident happened of his pulling down a lamp upon himself, and of my wife seizing him, and herself being burnt to death. She was weak, too, for but eleven days had passed since her confinement.”
“No. What I mean is that in that accident you see a punishment for sins committed by the child’s father and mother.”
This reply from the corner came with perfect confidence. The black-bearded man, however, pretended not to hear it, but spread out his hands as though parting the air before him, and proceeded hurriedly, breathlessly to detail the manner in which his wife and little one had met their deaths. And all the time that he was doing so one had an inkling that often before had he recounted his narrative of horror, and that often again would he repeat it. His shaggy black eyebrows, as he delivered his speech, met in a single strip, while the whites of his eyes grew bloodshot, and their dull, black pupils never ceased their nervous twitching.
Presently the gloomy recital was once more roughly, unceremoniously broken in upon by the cheerful voice of the Christ-loving pilgrim.
“It is not right, brother,” the voice said, “to blame God for untoward accidents, or for mistakes and follies committed by ourselves.”
“But if God be God, He is responsible for all things.”
“Not so. Concede to yourself the faculty of reason.”
“Pah! What avails reason if it cannot make me understand?”
“Cannot make you understand WHAT?”
“The main point, the point why MY wife had to be burnt rather than my neighbour’s?”
Somewhere an old woman commented in spitefully distinct tones:
“Oh ho, ho! This man comes to a monastery, and starts railing as soon as he gets there!”
Flashing his eyes angrily, the black-bearded man lowered his head like a bull. Then, thinking better of his position, and contenting himself with a gesture, he strode swiftly, heavily towards the door. Upon this the Christ-loving pilgrim rose with a swaying motion, bowed to everyone present, and set about following his late interlocutor.
“It has all come of a broken heart,” he said with a smile as he passed me. Yet somehow the smile seemed to lack sympathy.
With a disapproving air someone else remarked:
“That fellow’s one thought is to enlarge and to enlarge upon his tale.”
“Yes, and to no purpose does he do so,” added the Christ-loving pilgrim as he halted in the doorway. “All that he accomplishes by it is to weary himself and others alike. Such experiences are far better put behind one.”
Presently I followed the pair into the forecourt, and near the entrance-gates heard a voice say quietly:
“Do not disturb yourself, good father.”
“Nevertheless” (the second voice was that of the porter of the monastery, Father Seraphim, a strapping Vetlugan) “a spectre walks here nightly.”
“Never mind if it does. As regards myself, no spectre would touch me.”
Here I moved in the direction of the gates.
“Who comes there?” Seraphim inquired as he thrust a hairy and uncouth, but infinitely kindly, face close to mine. “Oh, it is the young fellow from Nizhni Novgorod! You are wasting your time, my good sir, for the women have all gone to bed.”
With which he laughed and chuckled like a bear.
Beyond the wall of the forecourt the stillness of the autumn night was the languid inertia of a world exhausted by summer, and the withered grass and other objects of the season were exhaling a sweet and bracing odour, and the trees looking like fragments of cloud where motionless they hung in the moist, sultry air. Also, in the darkness the half-slumbering sea could be heard soughing as it crept towards the shore while over the sky lay a canopy of mist, save at the point where the moon’s opal-like blur could be descried over the spot where that blur’s counterfeit image glittered and rocked on the surface of the dark waters.
Under the trees there was set a bench whereon I could discern there to be resting a human figure. Approaching the figure, I seated myself beside it.
“Whence, comrade?” was my inquiry.
“From Voronezh. And you?”
A Russian is never adverse to talking about himself. It would seem as though he is never sure of his personality, as though he is ever yearning to have that personality confirmed from some source other than, extraneous to, his own ego. The reason for this must be that we Russians live diffused over a land of such vastness that, the more we grasp the immensity of the same, the smaller do we come to appear in our own eyes; wherefore, traversing, as we do, roads of a length of a thousand versts, and constantly losing our way, we come to let slip no opportunity of restating ourselves, and setting forth all that we have seen and thought and done.
Hence, too, must it be that in conversations one seems to hear less of the note of “I am I” than of the note of “Am I really and truly myself?”
“What may be your name?” next I inquired of the figure on the bench.
“A name of absolute simplicity — the name of Alexei Kalinin.”
“You are a namesake of mine, then.”
“Indeed? Is that so?”
With which, tapping me on the knee, the figure added:
“Come, then, namesake. ‘I have mortar, and you have water, so together let us paint the town.’”
Murmuring amid the silence could be heard small, light waves that were no more than ripples. Behind us the busy clamour of the monastery had died down, and even Kalinin’s cheery voice seemed subdued by the influence of the night — it seemed to have in it less of the note of self-confidence.
“My mother was a wet-nurse,” he went on to volunteer, and I her only child. When I was twelve years of age I was, owing to my height, converted into a footman. It happened thus. One day, on General Stepan (my mother’s then employer) happening to catch sight of me, he exclaimed: ‘Evgenia, go and tell Fedor’ (the ex-soldier who was then serving the General as footman) ‘that he is to teach your son to wait at table! The boy is at least tall enough for the work.’ And for nine years I served the General in this capacity. And then, and then — oh, THEN I was seized with an illness. . . . Next, I obtained a post under a merchant who was then mayor of our town, and stayed with him twenty-one months. And next I obtained a situation in an hotel at Kharkov, and held it for a year. And after that I kept changing my places, for, steady and sober though I was, I was beginning to lack taste for my profession, and to develop a spirit of the kind which deemed all work to be beneath me, and considered that I had been created to serve only myself, not others.”
Along the high road to Sukhum which lay behind us there were proceeding some invisible travellers whose scraping of feet as they walked proclaimed the fact that they were not over-used to journeying on foot. Just as the party drew level with us, a musical voice hummed out softly the line “Alone will I set forth upon the road,” with the word “alone” plaintively stressed. Next, a resonant bass voice said with a sort of indolent incisiveness:
“Aphon or aphonia means loss of speech to the extent of, to the extent of — oh, to WHAT extent, most learned Vera Vasilievna?”
“To the extent of total loss of power of articulation,” replied a voice feminine and youthful of timbre.
Just at that moment we saw two dark, blurred figures, with a paler figure between them, come gliding into view.
“Strange indeed is it that, that —”
“That so many names proper to these parts should also be so suggestive. Take, for instance, Mount Nakopioba. Certainly folk hereabouts seem to have “ amassed “ things, and to have known how to do so.” [The verb nakopit means to amass, to heap up.]
“For my part, I always fail to remember the name of Simon the Canaanite. Constantly I find myself calling him ‘the Cainite.’”
“Look here,” interrupted the musical voice in a tone of chastened enthusiasm. “As I contemplate all this beauty, and inhale this restfulness, I find myself reflecting: ‘How would it be if I were to let everything go to the devil, and take up my abode here for ever?’”
At this point all further speech became drowned by the sound of the monastery’s bell as it struck the hour. The only utterance that came borne to my ears was the mournful fragment:
Oh, if into a single word I could pour my inmost thoughts!
To the foregoing dialogue my companion had listened with his head tilted to one side, much as though the dialogue had deflected it in that direction: and now, as the voices died away into the distance, he sighed, straightened himself, and said:
“Clearly those people were educated folk. And see too how, as they talked of one thing and another, there cropped up the old and ever-persistent point.”
“To what point are you referring?”
My companion paused a moment before he replied. Then he said:
“Can it be that you did not hear it? Did you not hear one of those people remark: ‘I have a mind to surrender everything ‘?”
Whereafter, bending forward, and peering at me as a blind man would do, Kalinin added in a half-whisper:
“More and more are folk coming to think to themselves: ‘Now must I forsake everything.’ In the end I myself came to think it. For many a year did I increasingly reflect: ‘Why should I be a servant? What will it ever profit me? Even if I should earn twelve, or twenty, or fifty roubles a month, to what will such earnings lead, and where will the man in me come in? Surely it would be better to do nothing at all, but just to gaze into space (as I am doing now), and let my eyes stare straight before me?’”
“By the way, what were you talking to those people about?”
“Which people do you mean?”
“The bearded man and the rest, the company in the guest-chamber?”
“Ah, THAT man I did not like — I have no fancy at all for fellows who strew their grief about the world, and leave it to be trampled upon by every chance-comer. For how can the tears of my neighbour benefit me? True, every man has his troubles; but also has every man such a predilection for his particular woe that he ends by deeming it the most bitter and remarkable grief in the universe — you may take my word for that.”
Suddenly the speaker rose to his feet, a tall, lean figure.
“Now I must seek my bed,” he remarked. “You see, I shall have to leave here very early tomorrow.”
“And for what point?”
Now, the day being a Saturday, I had drawn my week’s earnings from the monastery’s pay-office just before the vigil service. Also, Novorossisk did not really lie in my direction. Thirdly, I had no particular wish to exchange the monastery for any other lodging. Nevertheless, despite all this, the man interested me to such an extent (of persons who genuinely interest one there never exist but two, and, of them, oneself is always one) that straightway I observed:
“I too shall be leaving here tomorrow.”
“Then let us travel together.”
At dawn, therefore, we set forth to foot the road in company. At times I mentally soared aloft, and viewed the scene from that vantage-point. Whenever I did so, I beheld two tall men traversing a narrow track by a seashore — the one clad in a grey military overcoat and a hat with a broken crown, and the other in a drab kaftan and a plush cap. At their feet the boundless sea was splashing white foam, salt-dried ribands of seaweed were strewing the path, golden leaves were dancing hither and thither, and the wind was howling at, and buffeting, the travellers as clouds sailed over their heads. Also, to their right there lay stretched a chain of mountains towards which the clouds kept wearily, nervelessly tending, while to their left there lay spread a white-laced expanse over the surface of which a roaring wind kept ceaselessly driving transparent columns of spray.
On such stormy days in autumn everything near a seashore looks particularly cheerful and vigorous, seeing that, despite the soughing of wind and wave, and the swift onrush of cloud, and the fact that the sun is only occasionally to be seen suspended in abysses of blue, and resembles a drooping flower, one feels that the apparent chaos has lurking in it a secret harmony of mundane, but imperishable, forces — so much so that in time even one’s puny human heart comes to imbibe the prevalent spirit of revolt, and, catching fire, to cry to all the universe: “ I love you! ”
Yes, at such times one desires to taste life to the full, and so to live that the ancient rocks shall smile, and the sea’s white horses prance the higher, as one’s mouth acclaims the earth in such a paean that, intoxicated with the laudation, it shall unfold its riches with added bountifulness and display more and more manifest beauty under the spur of the love expressed by one of its creatures, expressed by a human being who feels for the earth what he would feel for a woman, and yearns to fertilise the same to ever-increasing splendour.
Nevertheless,words are as heavy as stones, and after felling fancy to the ground, serve but to heap her grey coffin-lid, and cause one, as one stands contemplating the tomb, to laugh in sheer self-derision . . . .
Suddenly, plunged in dreams as I walked along, I heard through the plash of the waves and the sizzle of the foam the unfamiliar words:
“Hymen, Demon, Igamon, and Zmiulan. Good devils are these, not bad.”
“How does Christ get on with them?” I asked.
“Christ? He does not enter into the matter.”
“Is He hostile to them?”
“Is He HOSTILE to them? How could He be? Devils of that kind are devils to themselves-devils of a decent sort. Besides, to no one is Christ hostile” . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .. . . . . . . [In the Russian this hiatus occurs as marked.]
As though unable any longer to brave the assault of the billows, the path suddenly swerved towards the bushes on our right, and, in doing so, caused the cloud-wrapped mountains to shift correspondingly to our immediate front, where the masses of vapour were darkening as though rain were probable.
Kalinin’s discourse proved instructive as with his stick he from time to time knocked the track clear of clinging tendrils.
“The locality is not without its perils,” once he remarked. “For hereabouts there lurks malaria. It does so because long ago Maliar of Kostroma banished his evil sister, Fever, to these parts. Probably he was paid to do so, but the exact circumstances escape my memory.”
So thickly was the surface of the sea streaked with cloud-shadows that it bore the appearance of being in mourning, of being decked in the funeral colours of black and white. Afar off, Gudaout lay lashed with foam, while constantly objects like snowdrifts kept gliding towards it.
“Tell me more about those devils,” I said at length.
“Well, if you wish. But what exactly am I to tell you about them?”
“All that you may happen to know.”
“Oh, I know EVERYTHING about them.”
To this my companion added a wink. Then he continued:
“I say that I know everything about those devils for the reason that for my mother I had a most remarkable woman, a woman cognisant of each and every species of proverb, anathema, and item of hagiology. You must know that, after spreading my bed beside the kitchen stove each night, and her own bed on the top of the stove (for, after her wet-nursing of three of the General’s children, she lived a life of absolute ease, and did no work at all)—”
Here Kalinin halted, and, driving his stick into the ground, glanced back along the path before resuming his way with firm, lengthy strides.
“I may tell you that the General had a niece named Valentina Ignatievna. And she too was a most remarkable woman.”
“Remarkable for what?”
“Remarkable for EVERYTHING.”
At this moment there came floating over our heads through the damp-saturated air a cormorant — one of those voracious birds which so markedly lack intelligence. And somehow the whistling of its powerful pinions awoke in me an unpleasant reminiscent thought.
“Pray continue,” I said to my fellow traveller.
And each night, as I lay on the floor (I may mention that never did I climb on to the stove, and to this day I dislike the heat of one), it was her custom to sit with her legs dangling over the edge of the top, and tell me stories. And though the room would be too dark for me to see her face, I could yet see the things of which she would be speaking. And at times, as these tales came floating down to me, I would find them so horrible as to be forced to cry out, ‘Oh, Mamka, Mamka, DON’T! . . .’ To this hour I have no love for the bizarre, and am but a poor hand at remembering it. And as strange as her stories was my mother. Eventually she died of an attack of blood-poisoning and, though but forty, had become grey-headed. Yes, and so terribly did she smell after her death that everyone in the kitchen was constrained to exclaim at the odour.”
“Yes, but what of the devils?”
“You must wait a minute or two.”
Ever as we proceeded, clinging, fantastic branches kept closing in upon the path, so that we appeared to be walking through a sea of murmuring verdure. And from time to time a bough would flick us as though to say: “Speed, speed, or the rain will be upon you!”
If anything, however, my companion slackened his pace as in measured, sing-song accents he continued:
“When Jesus Christ, God’s Son, went forth into the wilderness to collect His thoughts, Satan sent devils to subject Him to temptation. Christ was then young; and as He sat on the burning sand in the middle of the desert, He pondered upon one thing and another, and played with a handful of pebbles which He had collected. Until presently from afar, there descried Him the devils Hymen, Demon, Igamon, and Zmiulan — devils of equal age with the Saviour.
“Drawing near unto Him, they said, ‘Pray suffer us to sport with Thee.’ Whereupon Christ answered with a smile: ‘Pray be seated.’ Then all of them did sit down in a circle, and proceed to business, which business was to see whether or not any member of the party could so throw a stone into the air as to prevent it from falling back upon the burning sand. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
[In the original Russian this hiatus occurs as given.]
“Christ Himself was the first to throw a stone; whereupon His stone became changed into a six-winged dove, and fluttered away towards the Temple of Jerusalem. And, next, the impotent devils strove to do the same; until at length, when they saw that Christ could not in any wise be tempted, Zmiulan, the senior of the devils, cried:
“‘Oh Lord, we will tempt Thee no more; for of a surety do we avail not, and, though we be devils, never shall do so!’
“‘Aye, never shall ye!’ Christ did agree. ‘And, therefore, I will now fulfil that which from the first I did conceive. That ye be devils I know right well. And that, while yet afar off, ye did, on beholding me, have compassion upon me I know right well. While also ye did not in any wise seek to conceal from me the truth as concerning yourselves. Hence shall ye, for the remainder of your lives, be GOOD devils; so that at the last shall matters be rendered easier for you. Do thou, Zmiulan, become King of the Ocean, and send the winds of the sea to cleanse the land of foul air. And do thou, Demon, see to it that the cattle shall eat of no poisonous herb, but that all herbs of the sort be covered with prickles. Do thou, Igamon, comfort, by night, all comfortless widows who shall be blaming God for the death of their husbands? And do thou, Hymen, as the youngest devil of the band, choose for thyself wherein shall lie thy charge.’
“‘Oh Lord,’ replied Hymen, ‘I do love but to laugh.’
“And the Saviour replied:
“‘Then cause thou folk to laugh. Only, mark thou, see to it that they laugh not IN CHURCH.’
“‘Yet even in church would I laugh, Oh Lord,’ the devil objected.
“ ‘Jesus Christ Himself laughed.
“ ‘God go with you!’ at length He said. ‘Then let folk laugh even in church — but QUIETLY.’
“In such wise did Christ convert those four evil devils into devils of goodness.”
Soaring over the green, bushy sea were a number of old oaks. On them the yellow leaves were trembling as though chilled; here and there a sturdy hazel was doffing its withered garments, and elsewhere a wild cherry was quivering, and elsewhere an almost naked chestnut was politely rendering obeisance to the earth.
“Did you find that story of mine a good one?” my companion inquired.
“I did, for Christ was so good in it.”
“Always and everywhere He is so,” Kalinin proudly rejoined. “But do you also know what an old woman of Smolensk used to sing concerning Him?”
“ I do not.”
Halting, my strange traveller chanted in a feignedly senile and tremulous voice, as he beat time with his foot:
In the heavens a flow’r doth blow, It is the Son of God. From it all our joys do flow, It is the Son of God. In the sun’s red rays He dwells He, the Son of God. His light our every ill dispels. Praised be the Son of God!
Each successive line seemed to inspire Kalinin’s voice with added youthfulness, until, indeed, the concluding words — “The One and Only God”— issued in a high, agreeable tenor.
Suddenly a flash of lightning blazed before us, while dull thunder crashed among the mountains, and sent its hundred-voiced echoes rolling over land and sea. In his consternation, Kalinin opened his mouth until a set of fine, even teeth became bared to view. Then, with repeated crossings of himself, he muttered.
“Oh dread God, Oh beneficent God, Oh God who sittest on high, and on a golden throne, and under a gilded canopy, do Thou now punish Satan, lest he overwhelm me in the midst of my sins!”
Whereafter, turning a small and terrified face in my direction, and blinking his bright eyes, he added with hurried diction:
“Come, brother! Come! Let us run on ahead, for thunderstorms are my bane. Yes, let us run with all possible speed, run ANYWHERE, for soon the rain will be pouring down, and these parts are full of lurking fever.”
Off, therefore, we started, with the wind smiting us behind, and our kettles and teapots jangling, and my wallet, in particular, thumping me about the middle of the body as though it had been wielding a large, soft fist. Yet a far cry would it be to the mountains, nor was any dwelling in sight, while ever and anon branches caught at our clothes, and stones leapt aloft under our tread, and the air grew steadily darker, and the mountains seemed to begin gliding towards us.
Once more from the black cloud-masses, heaven belched a fiery dart which caused the sea to scintillate with blue sapphires in response, and, seemingly, to recoil from the shore as the earth shook, and the mountain defiles emitted a gigantic scrunching sound of their rock-hewn jaws.
“Oh Holy One! Oh Holy One! Oh Holy One!” screamed Kalinin as he dived into the bushes.
In the rear, the waves lashed us as though they had a mind to arrest our progress; from the gloom to our front came a sort of scraping and rasping; long black hands seemed to wave over our heads; just at the point where the mountain crests lay swathed in their dense coverlet of cloud,there rumbled once more the deafening iron chariot of the thunder-god; more and more frequently flashed the lightning as the earth rang, and rifts cleft by the blue glare disclosed, amid the obscurity, great trees that were rustling and rocking and, to all appearances, racing headlong before the scourge of a cold, slanting rain.
The occasion was a harassing but bracing one, for as the fine bands of rain beat upon our faces, our bodies felt filled with a heady vigour of a kind to fit us to run indefinitely — at all events to run until this storm of rain and thunder should be outpaced, and clear weather be reached again.
Suddenly Kalinin shouted: “Stop! Look!”
This was because the fitful illumination of a flash had just shown up in front of us the trunk of an oak tree which had a large black hollow let into it like a doorway. So into that hollow we crawled as two mice might have done — laughing aloud in our glee as we did so.
“Here there is room for THREE persons,” my companion remarked. “Evidently it is a hollow that has been burnt out — though rascals indeed must the burners have been to kindle a fire in a living tree!”
However, the space within the hollow was both confined and redolent of smoke and dead leaves. Also, heavy drops of rain still bespattered our heads and shoulders, and at every peal of thunder the tree quivered and creaked until the strident din around us gave one the illusion of being afloat in a narrow caique. Meanwhile at every flash of the lightning’s glare, we could see slanting ribands of rain cutting the air with a network of blue, glistening, vitreous lines.
Presently, the wind began to whistle less loudly, as though now it felt satisfied at having driven so much productive rain into the ground, and washed clean the mountain tops, and loosened the stony soil.
“U-oh! U-oh!” hooted a grey mountain owl just over our heads.
“Why, surely it believes the time to be night!” Kalinin commented in a whisper.
“U-oh! U-u-u-oh!” hooted the bird again, and in response my companion shouted:
“You have made a mistake, my brother!”
By this time the air was feeling chilly, and a bright grey fog had streamed over us, and wrapped a semi-transparent veil about the gnarled, barrel-like trunks with their outgrowing shoots and the few remaining leaves still adhering.
Far and wide the monotonous din continued to rage — it did so until conscious thought began almost to be impossible. Yet even as one strained one’s attention, and listened to the rain lashing the fallen leaves, and pounding the stones, and bespattering the trunks of the trees, and to the murmuring and splashing of rivulets racing towards the sea, and to the roaring of torrents as they thundered over the rocks of the mountains, and to the creaking of trees before the wind, and to the measured thud-thud of the waves; as one listened to all this, the thousand sounds seemed to combine into a single heaviness of hurried clamour, and involuntarily one found oneself striving to disunite them, and to space them even as one spaces the words of a song.
Kalinin fidgeted, nudged me, and muttered:
“I find this place too close for me. Always I have hated confinement.”
Nevertheless he had taken far more care than I to make himself comfortable, for he had edged himself right into the hollow, and, by squatting on his haunches, reduced his frame to the form of a ball. Moreover, the rain-drippings scarcely or in no wise touched him, while, in general, he appeared to have developed to the full an aptitude for vagrancy as a permanent condition, and for the allowing of no unpleasant circumstance to debar him from invariably finding the most convenient vantage-ground at a given juncture. Presently, in fact, he continued:
“Yes; despite the rain and cold and everything else, I consider life to be not quite intolerable.”
“Not quite intolerable in what?”
“Not quite intolerable in the fact that at least I am bound to the service of no one save God. For if disagreeablenesses have to be endured, at all events they come better from Him than from one’s own species.”
“Then you have no great love for your own species?”
“One loves one’s neighbour as the dog loves the stick.” To which, after a pause, the speaker added:
For WHY should I love him?”
It puzzled me to cite a reason off-hand, but, fortunately, Kalinin did not wait for an answer — rather, he went on to ask:
“Have you ever been a footman?”
“No,” I replied.
“Then let me tell you that it is peculiarly difficult for a footman to love his neighbour.”
“Go and be a footman; THEN you will know. In fact, it is never the case that, if one serves a man, one can love that man. . . . How steadily the rain persists!”
Indeed, on every hand there was in progress a trickling and a splashing sound as though the weeping earth were venting soft, sorrowful sobs over the departure of summer before winter and its storms should arrive.
“How come you to be travelling the Caucasus?” I asked at length.
“Merely through the fact that my walking and walking has brought me hither,” was the reply. “For that matter, everyone ends by heading for the Caucasus.”
“Why NOT, seeing that from one’s earliest years one hears of nothing but the Caucasus, the Caucasus? Why, even our old General used to harp upon the name, with his moustache bristling, and his eyes protruding, as he did so. And the same as regards my mother, who had visited the country in the days when, as yet, the General was in command but of a company. Yes, everyone tends hither. And another reason is the fact that the country is an easy one to live in, a country which enjoys much sunshine, and produces much food, and has a winter less long and severe than our own winter, and therefore presents pleasanter conditions of life.”
“And what of the country’s people?”
“What of the country’s people? Oh, so long as you keep yourself to yourself they will not interfere with you.”
“And why will they not?”
Kalinin paused, stared at me, smiled condescendingly, and, finally, said:
“What a dullard you are to ask about such simple things! Were you never given any sort of an education? Surely by this time you ought to be able to understand something?”
Then, with a change of subject, and subduing his tone to one of snuffling supplication, he added in the sing-song chant of a person reciting a prayer:
“‘Oh Lord, suffer me not to become bound unto the clergy the priesthood, the diaconate, the tchinovstvo, [The official class] or the intelligentsia!’ This was a petition which my mother used often to repeat.”
The raindrops now were falling more gently, and in finer lines and more transparent network, so that one could once more descry the great trunks of the blackened oaks, with the green and gold of their leaves. Also, our own hollow had grown less dark, and there could be discerned its smoky, satin-bright walls. From those walls Kalinin picked a bit of charcoal with finger and thumb, saying:
“It was shepherds that fired the place. See where they dragged in hay and dead leaves! A shepherd’s fife hereabouts must be a truly glorious one!”
Lastly, clasping his head as though he were about to fall asleep, he sank his chin between his knees, and relapsed into silence.
Presently a brilliant, sinuous little rivulet which had long been laving the bare roots of our tree brought floating past us a red and fawn leaf.
“How pretty,” I thought, “that leaf will look from a distance when reposing on the surface of the sea! For, like the sun when he is in solitary possession of the heavens, that leaf will stand out against the blue, silky expanse like a lonely red star.”
After awhile my companion began, catlike, to purr to himself a song. Its melody, the melody of “the moon withdrew behind a cloud,” was familiar enough, but not so the words, which ran:
Oh Valentina, wondrous maid, More comely thou than e’er a flow’r! The nurse’s son doth pine for thee, And yearn to serve thee every hour!
“What does that ditty mean?” I inquired.
Kalinin straightened himself, gave a wriggle to a form that was as lithe as a lizard’s, and passed one hand over his face.
“It is a certain composition,” he replied presently. “It is a composition that was composed by a military clerk who afterwards died of consumption. He was my friend his life long, and my only friend, and a true one, besides being a man out of the common.”
“And who was Valentina?”
“My one-time mistress,” Kalinin spoke unwillingly.
“And he, the clerk — was he in love with her?”
“Oh dear no!”
Evidently Kalinin had no particular wish to discuss the subject, for he hugged himself together, buried his face in his hands, and muttered:
“I should like to kindle a fire, were it not that everything in the place is too damp for the purpose.”
The wind shook the trees, and whistled despondently, while the fine, persistent rain still whipped the earth.
“I but humble am, and poor, Nor fated to be otherwise,”
sang Kalinin softly as, flinging up his head with an unexpected movement, he added meaningly:
“Yes, it is a mournful song, a song which could move to tears. Only to two persons has it ever been known; to my friend the clerk and to myself. Yes, and to HER, though I need hardly add that at once she forgot it.”
And Kalinin’s eyes flashed into a smile as he added:
“I think that, as a young man, you had better learn forthwith where the greatest danger lurks in life. Let me tell you a story.”
And upon that a very human tale filtered through the silken monotonous swish of the downpour, with, for listeners to it, only the rain and myself.
“Lukianov was NEVER in love with her,” he narrated. “Only I was that. All that Lukianov did in the matter was to write, at my request, some verses. When she first appeared on the scene (I mean Valentina Ignatievna) I was just turned nineteen years of age; and the instant that my eyes fell upon her form I realised that in her alone lay my fate, and my heart almost stopped beating, and my vitality stretched out towards her as a speck of dust flies towards a fire. Yet all this I had to conceal as best I might; with the result that in the company’s presence I felt like a sentry doing guard duty in the presence of his commanding officer. But at last, though I strove to pull myself together, to steady myself against the ferment that was raging in my breast, something happened. Valentina Ignatievna was then aged about twenty-five, and very beautiful — marvellous, in fact! Also, she was an orphan, since her father had been killed by the Chechentzes, and her mother had died of smallpox at Samarkand. As regards her kinship with the General, she stood to him in the relation of niece by marriage. Golden-locked, and as skin-fair as enamelled porcelain, she had eyes like emeralds, and a figure wholly symmetrical, though as slim as a wafer. For bedroom she had a little corner apartment situated next to the kitchen (the General possessed his own house, of course), while, in addition, they allotted her a bright little boudoir in which she disposed her curios and knickknacks, from cut-glass bottles and goblets to a copper pipe and a glass ring mounted on copper. This ring, when turned, used to emit showers of glittering sparks, though she was in no way afraid of them, but would sing as she made them dance:
“Not for me the spring will dawn! Not for me the Bug will spate! Not for me love’s smile will wait! Not for me, ah, not for me!
“Constantly would she warble this.
“Also, once she flashed an appeal at me with her eyes, and said:
“‘Alexei, please never touch anything in my room, for my things are too fragile.’
“Sure enough, in HER presence ANYTHING might have fallen from my hands!
“Meanwhile her song about ‘Not for me’ used to make me feel sorry for her. ‘Not for you? ‘ I used to say to myself. ‘Ought not EVERYTHING to be for you? ‘ And this reflection would cause my heart to yearn and stretch towards her. Next, I bought a guitar, an instrument which I could not play, and took it for instruction to Lukianov, the clerk of the Divisional Staff, which had its headquarters in our street. In passing I may say that Lukianov was a little Jewish convert with dark hair, sallow features, and gimlet-sharp eyes, but beyond all things a fellow with brains, and one who could play the guitar unforgettably.
“Once he said: ‘In life all things are attainable — nothing need we lose for want of trying. For whence does everything come? From the plainest of mankind. A man may not be BORN in the rank of a general, but at least he may attain to that position. Also, the beginning and ending of all things is woman. All that she requires for her captivation is poetry. Hence, let me write you some verses, that you may tender them to her as an offering.’
“These, mind you, were the words of a man in whom the heart was absolutely single, absolutely dispassionate.”
Until then Kalinin had told his story swiftly, with animation; but thereafter he seemed, as it were, to become extinguished. After a pause of a few seconds he continued — continued in slower, to all appearances more unwilling, accents —
“At the time I believed what Lukianov said, but subsequently I came to see that things were not altogether as he had represented — that woman is merely a delusion, and poetry merely fiddle-faddle; and that a man cannot escape his fate, and that, though good in war, boldness is, in peace affairs, but naked effrontery. In this, brother, lies the chief, the fundamental law of life. For the world contains certain people of high station, and certain people of low; and so long as these two categories retain their respective positions, all goes well; but as soon as ever a man seeks to pass from the upper category to the inferior category, or from the inferior to the upper, the fat falls into the fire, and that man finds himself stuck midway, stuck neither here nor there, and bound to abide there for the remainder of his life, for the remainder of his life. . . . Always keep to your own position, to the position assigned you by fate.. . . . Will the rain NEVER cease, think you?”
By this time, as a matter of fact, the raindrops. were falling less heavily and densely than hitherto, and the wet clouds were beginning to reveal bright patches in the moisture-soaked firmament, as evidence that the sun was still in existence.
“Continue,” I said.
“Then you find the story an interesting one,” he remarked.
Presently he resumed:
“As I have said, I trusted Lukianov implicitly, and begged of him to write the verses. And write them he did — he wrote them the very next day. True, at this distance of time I have forgotten the words in their entirety, but at least I remember that there occurred in them a phrase to the effect that ‘for days and weeks have your eyes been consuming my heart in the fire of love, so pity me, I pray.’ I then proceeded to copy out the poem, and tremblingly to leave it on her table.
“The next morning, when I was tidying her boudoir, she made an unexpected entry, and, clad in a loose, red dressing-gown, and holding a cigarette between her lips, said to me with a kindly smile as she produced my precious paper of verses:
“‘Alexei, did YOU write these?’
“‘Yes,’ was my reply. ‘And for Christ’s sake pardon me for the same.’
“‘What a pity that such a fancy should have entered your head! For, you see, I am engaged already — my uncle is intending to marry me to Doctor Kliachka, and I am powerless in the matter.’
“The very fact that she could address me with so much sympathy and kindness struck me dumb. As regards Doctor Kliachka, I may mention that he was a good-looking, blotchy-faced, heavy-jowled fellow with a moustache that reached to his shoulders, and lips that were for ever laughing and vociferating. ‘Nothing has either a beginning or an end. The only thing really existent is pleasure.’
“Nay, even the General could, at times, make sport of the fellow, and say as he shook with merriment:
“‘A doctor-comedian is the sort of man that you are.’
“Now, at the period of which I am speaking I was as straight as a dart, and had a shock of luxuriant hair over a set of ruddy features. Also, I was living a life clean in every way, and maintaining a cautious attitude towards womenfolk, and holding prostitutes in a contempt born of the fact that I had higher views with regard to my life’s destiny. Lastly, I never indulged in liquor, for I actually disliked it, and gave way to its influence only in days subsequent to the episode which I am narrating. Yes, and, last of all, I was in the habit of taking a bath every Saturday.
“The same evening Kliachka and the rest of the party went out to the theatre (for, naturally, the General had horses and a carriage of his own), and I, for my part, went to inform Lukianov of what had happened.
“He said: ‘I must congratulate you, and am ready to wager you two bottles of beer that your affair is as good as settled. In a few seconds a fresh lot of verses shall be turned out, for poetry constitutes a species of talisman or charm.’
“And, sure enough, he then and there composed the piece about ‘the wondrous Valentina.’ What a tender thing it is, and how full of understanding! My God, my God!”
And, with a thoughtful shake of his bead, Kalinin raised his boyish eyes towards the blue patches in the rain-washed sky.
“Duly she found the verses,” he continued after a while, and with a vehemence that seemed wholly independent of his will. “And thereupon she summoned me to her room.
“‘What are we to do about it all?’ she inquired.
“She was but half-dressed, and practically the whole of her bosom was visible to my sight. Also, her naked feet had on them only slippers, and as she sat in her chair she kept rocking one foot to and fro in a maddening way.
“‘What are we to do about it all?’ she repeated.
“‘What am I to say about it, at length I replied, ‘save that I feel as though I were not really existing on earth?’
“‘Are you one who can hold your tongue?’ was her next question.
“I nodded — nothing else could I compass, for further speech had become impossible. Whereupon, rising with brows puckered, she fetched a couple of small phials, and, with the aid of ingredients thence, mixed a powder which she wrapped in paper, and handed me with the words:
“‘Only one way of escape offers from the Plagues of Egypt. Here I have a certain powder. Tonight the doctor is to dine with us. Place the powder in his soup, and within a few days I shall be free! — yes, free for you!’
“I crossed myself, and duly took from her the paper, whilst a mist rose, and swam before my eyes, as I did so, and my legs became perfectly numb. What I next did I hardly know, for inwardly I was swooning. Indeed, until Kliachka’s arrival the same evening I remained practically in a state of coma.”
Here Kalinin shuddered — then glanced at me with drawn features and chattering teeth, and stirred uneasily.
“Suppose we light a fire?” he ventured. “I am growing shivery all over. But first we must move outside.”
The torn clouds were casting their shadows wearily athwart the sodden earth and glittering stones and silver-dusted herbage. Only on a single mountain top had a blur of mist settled like an arrested avalanche, and was resting there with its edges steaming. The sea too had grown calmer under the rain, and was splashing with more gentle mournfulness, even as the blue patches in the firmament had taken on a softer, warmer look, and stray sunbeams were touching upon land and sea in turn, and, where they chanced to fall upon herbage, causing pearls and emeralds to sparkle on every leaf, and kaleidoscopic tints to glow where the dark-blue sea reflected their generous radiance. Indeed, so goodly, so full of promise, was the scene that one might have supposed autumn to have fled away for ever before the wind and the rain, and beneficent summer to have been restored.
Presently through the moist, squelching sound of our footsteps, and the cheerful patter of the rain-drippings, Kalinin’s narrative resumed its languid, querulous course:
“When, that evening, I opened the door to the doctor I could not bring myself to look him in the face — I could merely hang my head; whereupon, taking me by the chin, and raising it, he inquired:
“Why is your face so yellow? What is the matter with you?’
“Yes, a kind-hearted man was he, and one who had never failed to tip me well, and to speak to me with as much consideration as though I had not been a footman at all.
“‘I am not in very good health,’ I replied. ‘I, I—’
“‘Come, come!’ was his interjection. ‘After dinner I must look you over, and in the meanwhile, do keep up your spirits.’
“Then I realised that poison him I could not, but that the powder must be swallowed by myself — yes, by myself! Aye, over my heart a flash of lightning had gleamed, and shown me that now I was no longer following the road properly assigned me by fate.
“Rushing away to my room, I poured out a glass of water, and emptied into it the powder; whereupon the water thickened, fizzed, and became topped with foam. Oh, a terrible moment it was! . . . Then I drank the mixture. Yet no burning sensation ensued, and though I listened to my vitals, nothing was to be heard in that quarter, but, on the contrary, my head began to lighten, and I found myself losing the sense of self-pity which had brought me almost to the point of tears. . . . Shall we settle ourselves here?”
Before us a large stone, capped with green moss and climbing plants, was good-humouredly thrusting upwards a broad, flat face beneath which the body had, like that of the hero Sviatogov, sunken into the earth through its own weight until only the face, a visage worn with aeons of meditation, was now visible. On every side, also, had oak-trees overgrown and encompassed the bulk of the projection, as though they too had been made of stone, with their branches drooping sufficiently low to brush the wrinkles of the ancient monolith. Kalinin seated himself on his haunches under the overhanging rim of the stone, and said as he snapped some twigs in half:
“This is where we ought to have been sitting whilst the rain was coming down.”
“And so say I,” I rejoined. “But pray continue your story.”
“Yes, when you have put a match to the fire.”
Whereafter, further withdrawing his spare frame under the stone, so that he might stretch himself at full length, Kalinin continued:
“I walked to the pantry quietly enough, though my legs were tottering beneath me, and I had a cold sensation in my breast. Suddenly I heard the dining-room echo to a merry peal of laughter from Valentina Ignatievna, and the General reply to that outburst:
“‘Ah, that man! Ah, these servants of ours! Why, the fellow would do ANYTHING for a piatak ‘[A silver five-kopeck piece, equal in value to 2 1/4 pence.]
“To this my beloved one retorted:
“‘Oh, uncle, uncle! Is it only a piatak that I am worth?
And then I heard the doctor put in:
“‘What was it you gave him?’
“‘Merely some soda and tartaric acid. To think of the fun that we shall have!’”
Here, closing his eyes, Kalinin remained silent for a moment, whilst the moist breeze sighed as it drove dense, wet mist against the black branches of the trees.
“At first my feeling was one of overwhelming joy at the thought that at least not DEATH was to be my fate. For I may tell you that, so far from being harmful, soda and tartaric acid are frequently taken as a remedy against drunken headache. Then the thought occurred to me: ‘But, since I am not a tippler, why should such a joke have been played upon ME?’ However, from that moment I began to feel easier, and when the company had sat down to dinner, and, amid a general silence, I was handing round the soup, the doctor tasted his portion, and, raising his head with a frown, inquired:
“‘Forgive me, but what soup is this? ’
“’ Ah!’ I inwardly reflected. ‘Soon, good gentlefolk, you will see how your jest has miscarried.’
“Aloud I replied — replied with complete boldness:
“‘Do not fear, sir. I have taken the powder myself.’
Upon this the General and his wife, who were still in ignorance that the jest had gone amiss, began to titter, but the others said nothing, though Valentina Ignatievna’s eyes grew rounder and rounder, until in an undertone she murmured:
“‘Did you KNOW that the stuff was harmless?’
“‘I did not,’ I replied. ‘At least, not at the moment of my drinking it.’
“Whereafter falling headlong to the floor, I lost consciousness.”
Kalinin’s small face had become painfully contracted, and grown old and haggard-looking. Rolling over on to his breast before the languishing fire, he waved a hand to dissipate the smoke which was lazily drifting slant-wise.
“For seventeen days did I remain stretched on a sick-bed, and was attended by the doctor in person. One day, when sitting by my side, he inquired:
“‘I presume your intention was to poison yourself, you foolish fellow?’
“Yes, merely THAT was what he called me — a ‘foolish fellow.’ Yet indeed, what was I to him? Only an entity which might become food for dogs, for all he cared. Nor did Valentina Ignatievna herself pay me a single visit, and my eyes never again beheld her. Before long she and Dr. Kliachka were duly married, and departed to Kharkov, where he was assigned a post in the Tchuguerski Camp. Thus only the General remained. Rough and ready, he was, nevertheless, old and sensible, and for that reason, did not matter; wherefore I retained my situation as before. On my recovery, he sent for me, and said in a tone of reproof:
“‘Look here. You are not wholly an idiot. What has happened is that those vile books of yours have corrupted your mind’ (as a matter of fact, I had never read a book in my life, since for reading I have no love or inclination). ‘Hence you must have seen for yourself that only in tales do clowns marry princesses. You know, life is like a game of chess. Every piece has its proper move on the board, or the game could not be played at all.’”
Kalinin rubbed his hands over the fire (slender, non-workmanlike hands they were), and winked and smiled.
“I took the General’s words very seriously, and proceeded to ask myself: ‘To what do those words amount? To this: that though I may not care actually to take part in the game, I need not waste my whole existence through a disinclination to learn the best use to which that existence can be put.’
With a triumphant uplift of tone, Kalinin continued:
“So, brother, I set myself to WATCH the game in question; with the result that soon I discovered that the majority of men live surrounded with a host of superfluous commodities which do but burden them, and have in themselves no real value. What I refer to is books, pictures, china, and rubbish of the same sort. Thought I to myself: ‘Why should I devote my life to tending and dusting such commodities while risking, all the time, their breakage? No more of it for me! Was it for the tending of such articles that my mother bore me amid the agonies of childbirth? Is it an existence of THIS kind that must be passed until the tomb be reached? No, no — a thousand times no! Rather will I, with your good leave, reject altogether the game of life, and subsist as may be best for me, and as may happen to be my pleasure.’”
Now, as Kalinin spoke, his eyes emitted green sparks, and as he waved his hands over the fire, as though to lop off the red tongues of flame, his fingers twisted convulsively.
“Of course, not all at a stroke did I arrive at this conclusion; I did so but gradually. The person who finally confirmed me in my opinion was a friar of Baku, a sage of pre-eminent wisdom, through his saying to me: ‘With nothing at all ought a man to fetter his soul. Neither with bond-service, nor with property, nor with womankind, nor with any other concession to the temptations of this world ought he to constrain its action. Rather ought he to live alone, and to love none but Christ. Only this is true. Only this will be for ever lasting.’
“And,” added Kalinin with animation and inflated cheeks and flushed, suppressed enthusiasm, “many lands and many peoples have I seen, and always have I found (particularly in Russia) that many folk already have reached an understanding of themselves, and, consequently, refused any longer to render obeisance to absurdities. ‘Shun evil, and you will evolve good.’ That is what the friar said to me as a parting word — though long before our encounter had I grasped the meaning of the axiom. And that axiom I myself have since passed on to other folk, as I hope to do yet many times in the future.”
At this point the speaker’s tone reverted to one of querulous anxiety.
“Look how low the sun has sunk!” he exclaimed.
True enough, that luminary, large and round, was declining into — rather, towards — the sea, while suspended between him and the water were low, dark, white-topped cumuli.
“Soon nightfall will be overtaking us,” continued Kalinin as he fumbled in his kaftan. “And in these parts jackals howl when darkness is come.”
In particular did I notice three clouds that looked like Turks in white turbans and robes of a dusky red colour. And as these cloud Turks bent their heads together in private converse, suddenly there swelled up on the back of one of the figures a hump, while on the turban of a second there sprouted forth a pale pink feather which, becoming detached from its base, went floating upwards towards the zenith and the now rayless, despondent, moonlike sun. Lastly the third Turk stooped forward over the sea to screen his companions, and as he did so, developed a huge red nose which comically seemed to dip towards, and sniff at, the waters.
“Sometimes,” continued Kalinin’s even voice through the crackling and hissing of the wood fire, “a man who is old and blind may cobble a shoe better than cleverer men than he, can order their whole lives.”
But no longer did I desire to listen to Kalinin, for the threads which had drawn me, bound me, to his personality had now parted. All that I desired to do was to contemplate in silence the sea, while thinking of some of those subjects which at eventide never fail to stir the soul to gentle, kindly emotion. Bombers, Kalinin’s words continued dripping into my ear like belated raindrops.
“Nowadays everybody is a busybody. Nowadays everyone inquires of his fellow-man, ‘How is your life ordered?’ To which always there is added didactically, ‘But you ought not to live as you are doing. Let me show you the way.’ As though anyone can tell me how best my life may attain full development, seeing that no one can possibly have such a matter within his knowledge! Nay, let every man live as best he pleases, without compulsion. For instance, I have no need of you. In return, it is not your business either to require or to expect aught of me. And this I say though Father Vitali says the contrary, and avers that throughout should man war with the evils of the world.”
In the vague, wide firmament a blood-red cluster of clouds was hanging, and as I contemplated it there occurred to me the thought, “May not those clouds be erstwhile righteous world-folk who are following an unseen path across that expanse, and dyeing it red with their good blood as they go, in order that the earth may be fertilised?”
To right and left of that strip of living flame the sea was of a curious wine tint, while further off, rather, it was as soft and black as velvet, and in the remote east sheet-lightning was flashing even as though some giant hand were fruitlessly endeavouring to strike a match against the sodden firmament.
Meanwhile Kalinin continued to discourse with enthusiasm on the subject of Father Vitali, the Labour Superintendent of the monastery of New Athos, while describing in detail the monk’s jovial, clever features with their pearly teeth and contrasting black and silver beard. In particular he related how once Vitali had knitted his fine, almost womanlike eyes, and said in a bass which stressed its “o’s”:
“On our first arrival here, we found in possession only prehistoric chaos and demoniacal influence. Everywhere had clinging weeds grown to rankness; everywhere one found one’s feet entangled among bindweed and other vegetation of the sort. And now see what beauty and joy and comfort the hand of man has wrought!”
And, having thus spoken, the monk had traced a great circle with his eye and doughty hand, a circle which had embraced as in a frame the mount, and the gardens fashioned and developed by ridgings of the rock, and the downy soil which had been beaten into those ridgings, and the silver streak of waterfall playing almost at Vitali’s feet, and the stone-hewn staircase leading to the cave of Simeon the Canaanite, and the gilded cupolas of the new church where they had stood flashing in the noontide sun, and the snow-white, shimmering blocks of the guesthouse and the servants’ quarters, and the glittering fishponds, and the trees of uniform trimness, yet a uniformly regal dignity.
“Brethren,” the monk had said in triumphant conclusion, “wheresoever man may be, he will, as he so desires, be given power to overcome the desolation of the wilds.”
“And then I pressed him further,” Kalinin added. “ Yes, I said to him: ‘Nevertheless Christ, our Lord, was not like you, for He was homeless and a wanderer. He was one who utterly rejected your life of intensive cultivation of the soil’” (as he related the incident Kalinin gave his head sundry jerks from side to side which made his ears flap, to and fro). “‘Also neither for the lowly alone nor for the exalted alone did Christ exist. Rather, He, like all great benefactors, was one who had no particular leaning. Nay, even when He was roaming the Russian Land in company with Saints Yuri and Nikolai, He always forbore to intrude Himself into the villages’ affairs, just as, whenever His companions engaged in disputes concerning mankind, He never failed to maintain silence on the subject.’ Yes, thus I plagued Vitali until he shouted at my head, ‘Ah, impudence, you are a heretic!’”
By this time, the air under the lee of the stone was growing smoky and oppressive, for the fire, with its flames looking like a bouquet compounded of red poppies or azaleas and blooms of an aureate tint, had begun fairly to live its beautiful existence, and was blazing, and diffusing warmth, and laughing its bright, cheerful, intelligent laugh. Yet from the mountains and the cloud-masses evening was descending, as the earth emitted profound gasps of humidity, and the sea intoned its vague, thoughtful, resonant song.
“I presume we are going to pass the night here?” Kalinin at length queried.
“No, for my intention is, rather, to continue my journey.”
“Then let us make an immediate start.”
“But my direction will not be the same as yours, I think?”
Previously to this, Kalinin had squatted down upon his haunches, and taken some bread and a few pears from his wallet; but now, on hearing my decision, he replaced the viands in his receptacle, snapped — to the lid of it with an air of vexation — and asked:
“Why did you come with me at all?”
“Because I wanted to have a talk with you — I had found you an interesting character.”
“Yes. At least I am THAT; many like me do not exist.”
“Pardon me; I have met several.”
“Perhaps you have.” After which utterance, doubtfully drawled, the speaker added more sticks to the fire.
Eventide was falling with tardy languor, but, as yet, the sun, though become a gigantic, dull, red lentil in appearance, was not hidden, and the waves were still powerless to besprinkle his downward road of fire. Presently, however, he subsided into a cloud bank; whereupon darkness flooded the earth like water poured from an empty basin, and the great kindly stars shone forth, and the nocturnal profundity, enveloping the world, seemed to soften it even as a human heart may be rendered gentle.
“Good-bye!” I said as I pressed my companion’s small, yielding hand: whereupon he looked me in the eyes in his open, boyish way, and replied:
“I wish I were going with you!”
“Well, come with me as far as Gudaout.”
“Yes, I will.”
So we set forth once more to traverse the land which I, so alien to its inhabitants, yet so at one with all that it contained, loved so dearly, and of which I yearned to fertilise the life in return for the vitality with which it had filled my own existence.
For daily, the threads with which my heart was bound to the world at large were growing more numerous; daily my heart was storing up something which had at its root a sense of love for life, of interest in my fellow-man.
And that evening,as we proceeded on our way, the sea was singing its vespertinal hymn, the rocks were rumbling as the water caressed them, and on the furthermost edge of the dark void there were floating dim white patches where the sunset’s glow had not yet faded — though already stars were glowing in the zenith. Meanwhile every slumbering treetop was aquiver, and as I stepped across the scattered rain-pools, their water gurgled dreamily, timidly under my feet.
Yes, that night I was a torch unto myself, for in my breast a red flame was smouldering like a living beacon, and leading me to long that some frightened, belated wayfarer should, as it were, sight my little speck of radiancy amid the darkness.
Last updated Monday, December 22, 2014 at 10:50