The last day of July; for a thousand versts around, Russia, our native land.
An unbroken blue flooding the whole sky; a single cloudlet upon it, half floating, half fading away. Windlessness, warmth . . . air like new milk!
Larks are trilling; pouter-pigeons cooing; noiselessly the swallows dart to and fro; horses are neighing and munching; the dogs do not bark and stand peaceably wagging their tails.
A smell of smoke and of hay, and a little of tar, too, and a little of hides. The hemp, now in full bloom, sheds its heavy, pleasant fragrance.
A deep but sloping ravine. Along its sides willows in rows, with big heads above, trunks cleft below. Through the ravine runs a brook; the tiny pebbles at its bottom are all aquiver through its clear eddies. In the distance, on the border-line between earth and heaven, the bluish streak of a great river.
Along the ravine, on one side, tidy barns, little storehouses with close-shut doors; on the other side, five or six pinewood huts with boarded roofs. Above each roof, the high pole of a pigeon-house; over each entry a little short-maned horse of wrought iron. The window-panes of faulty glass shine with all the colours of the rainbow. Jugs of flowers are painted on the shutters. Before each door, a little bench stands prim and neat; on the mounds of earth, cats are basking, their transparent ears pricked up alert; beyond the high door-sills, is the cool dark of the outer rooms.
I lie on the very edge of the ravine, on an outspread horse-cloth; all about are whole stacks of fresh-cut hay, oppressively fragrant. The sagacious husbandmen have flung the hay about before the huts; let it get a bit drier in the baking sunshine; and then into the barn with it. It will be first-rate sleeping on it.
Curly, childish heads are sticking out of every haycock; crested hens are looking in the hay for flies and little beetles, and a white-lipped pup is rolling among the tangled stalks.
Flaxen-headed lads in clean smocks, belted low, in heavy boots, leaning over an unharnessed waggon, fling each other smart volleys of banter, with broad grins showing their white teeth.
A round-faced young woman peeps out of window; laughs at their words or at the romps of the children in the mounds of hay.
Another young woman with powerful arms draws a great wet bucket out of the well. . . . The bucket quivers and shakes, spilling long, glistening drops.
Before me stands an old woman in a new striped petticoat and new shoes.
Fat hollow beads are wound in three rows about her dark thin neck, her grey head is tied up in a yellow kerchief with red spots; it hangs low over her failing eyes.
But there is a smile of welcome in the aged eyes; a smile all over the wrinkled face. The old woman has reached, I dare say, her seventieth year . . . and even now one can see she has been a beauty in her day.
With a twirl of her sunburnt finger, she holds in her right hand a bowl of cold milk, with the cream on it, fresh from the cellar; the sides of the bowl are covered with drops, like strings of pearls. In the palm of her left hand the old woman brings me a huge hunch of warm bread, as though to say, ‘Eat, and welcome, passing guest!’
A cock suddenly crows and fussily flaps his wings; he is slowly answered by the low of a calf, shut up in the stall.
‘My word, what oats!’ I hear my coachman saying. . . . Oh, the content, the quiet, the plenty of the Russian open country! Oh, the deep peace and well-being!
And the thought comes to me: what is it all to us here, the cross on the cupola of St. Sophia in Constantinople and all the rest that we are struggling for, we men of the town?
‘Neither the Jungfrau nor the Finsteraarhorn has yet been trodden by the foot of man!’
The topmost peaks of the Alps . . . A whole chain of rugged precipices . . . The very heart of the mountains.
Over the mountain, a pale green, clear, dumb sky. Bitter, cruel frost; hard, sparkling snow; sticking out of the snow, the sullen peaks of the ice-covered, wind-swept mountains.
Two massive forms, two giants on the sides of the horizon, the Jungfrau and the Finsteraarhorn.
And the Jungfrau speaks to its neighbour: ‘What canst thou tell that is new? thou canst see more. What is there down below?’
A few thousand years go by: one minute. And the Finsteraarhorn roars back in answer: ‘Thick clouds cover the earth. . . . Wait a little!’
Thousands more years go by: one minute.
‘Well, and now?’ asks the Jungfrau.
‘Now I see, there below all is the same. There are blue waters, black forests, grey heaps of piled-up stones. Among them are still fussing to and fro the insects, thou knowest, the bipeds that have never yet once defiled thee nor me.’
Thousands of years go by: one minute.
‘Well, and now?’ asks the Jungfrau.
‘There seem fewer insects to be seen,’ thunders the Finsteraarhorn, ‘it is clearer down below; the waters have shrunk, the forests are thinner.’ Again thousands of years go by: one minute.
‘What seeest thou?’ says the Jungfrau.
‘Close about us it seems purer,’ answers the Finsteraarhorn, ‘but there in the distance in the valleys are still spots, and something is moving.’ ‘And now?’ asks the Jungfrau, after more thousands of years: one minute.
‘Now it is well,’ answers the Finsteraarhorn, ‘it is clean everywhere, quite white, wherever you look . . . Everywhere is our snow, unbroken snow and ice. Everything is frozen. It is well now, it is quiet.’
‘Good,’ said the Jungfrau. ‘But we have gossipped enough, old fellow. It’s time to slumber.’
‘It is time, indeed.’
The huge mountains sleep; the green, clear sky sleeps over the region of eternal silence.
THE OLD WOMAN
I was walking over a wide plain alone.
And suddenly I fancied light, cautious footsteps behind my back. . . . Some one was walking after me.
I looked round, and saw a little, bent old woman, all muffled up in grey rags. The face of the old woman alone peeped out from them; a yellow, wrinkled, sharp-nosed, toothless face.
I went up to her. . . . She stopped.
‘Who are you? What do you want? Are you a beggar? Do you seek alms?’
The old woman did not answer. I bent down to her, and noticed that both her eyes were covered with a half-transparent membrane or skin, such as is seen in some birds; they protect their eyes with it from dazzling light.
But in the old woman, the membrane did not move nor uncover the eyes . . . from which I concluded she was blind.
‘Do you want alms?’ I repeated my question. ‘Why are you following me?’ But the old woman as before made no answer, but only shrank into herself a little.
I turned from her and went on my way.
And again I hear behind me the same light, measured, as it were, stealthy steps.
‘Again that woman!’ I thought, ‘why does she stick to me?’ But then, I added inwardly, ‘Most likely she has lost her way, being blind, and now is following the sound of my steps so as to get with me to some inhabited place. Yes, yes, that’s it.’
But a strange uneasiness gradually gained possession of my mind. I began to fancy that the old woman was not only following me, but that she was directing me, that she was driving me to right and to left, and that I was unwittingly obeying her.
I still go on, however . . . but, behold, before me, on my very road, something black and wide . . . a kind of hole. . . . ‘A grave!’ flashed through my head. ‘That is where she is driving me!’
I turned sharply back. The old woman faced me again . . . but she sees! She is looking at me with big, cruel, malignant eyes . . . the eyes of a bird of prey. . . . I stoop down to her face, to her eyes. . . . Again the same opaque membrane, the same blind, dull countenance. . . .
‘Ah!’ I think, ‘this old woman is my fate. The fate from which there is no escape for man!’
‘No escape! no escape! What madness. . . . One must try.’ And I rush away in another direction.
I go swiftly. . . . But light footsteps as before patter behind me, close, close. . . . And before me again the dark hole.
Again I turn another way. . . . And again the same patter behind, and the same menacing blur of darkness before.
And whichever way I run, doubling like a hunted hare . . . it’s always the same, the same!
‘Wait!’ I think, ‘I will cheat her! I will go nowhere!’ and I instantly sat down on the ground.
The old woman stands behind, two paces from me. I do not hear her, but I feel she is there.
And suddenly I see the blur of darkness in the distance is floating, creeping of itself towards me!
God! I look round again . . . the old woman looks straight at me, and her toothless mouth is twisted in a grin.
Us two in the room; my dog and me. . . . Outside a fearful storm is howling.
The dog sits in front of me, and looks me straight in the face.
And I, too, look into his face.
He wants, it seems, to tell me something. He is dumb, he is without words, he does not understand himself — but I understand him.
I understand that at this instant there is living in him and in me the same feeling, that there is no difference between us. We are the same; in each of us there burns and shines the same trembling spark.
Death sweeps down, with a wave of its chill broad wing. . . .
And the end!
Who then can discern what was the spark that glowed in each of us?
No! We are not beast and man that glance at one another. . . .
They are the eyes of equals, those eyes riveted on one another.
And in each of these, in the beast and in the man, the same life huddles up in fear close to the other.
I had a comrade who was my adversary; not in pursuits, nor in service, nor in love, but our views were never alike on any subject, and whenever we met, endless argument arose between us.
We argued about everything: about art, and religion, and science, about life on earth and beyond the grave, especially about life beyond the grave.
He was a person of faith and enthusiasm. One day he said to me, ‘You laugh at everything; but if I die before you, I will come to you from the other world. . . . We shall see whether you will laugh then.’
And he did, in fact, die before me, while he was still young; but the years went by, and I had forgotten his promise, his threat.
One night I was lying in bed, and could not, and, indeed, would not sleep.
In the room it was neither dark nor light. I fell to staring into the grey twilight.
And all at once, I fancied that between the two windows my adversary was standing, and was slowly and mournfully nodding his head up and down.
I was not frightened; I was not even surprised . . . but raising myself a little, and propping myself on my elbow, I stared still more intently at the unexpected apparition.
The latter continued to nod his head.
‘Well?’ I said at last; ‘are you triumphant or regretful? What is this — warning or reproach? . . . Or do you mean to give me to understand that you were wrong, that we were both wrong? What are you experiencing? The torments of hell? Or the bliss of paradise? Utter one word at least!’
But my opponent did not utter a single sound, and only, as before, mournfully and submissively nodded his head up and down.
I laughed . . . he vanished.
I was walking along the street . . . I was stopped by a decrepit old beggar.
Bloodshot, tearful eyes, blue lips, coarse rags, festering wounds. . . . Oh, how hideously poverty had eaten into this miserable creature!
He held out to me a red, swollen, filthy hand. He groaned, he mumbled of help.
I began feeling in all my pockets. . . . No purse, no watch, not even a handkerchief. . . . I had taken nothing with me. And the beggar was still waiting . . . and his outstretched hand feebly shook and trembled.
Confused, abashed, I warmly clasped the filthy, shaking hand . . . ‘Don’t be angry, brother; I have nothing, brother.’
The beggar stared at me with his bloodshot eyes; his blue lips smiled; and he in his turn gripped my chilly fingers.
‘What of it, brother?’ he mumbled; ‘thanks for this, too. That is a gift too, brother.’
I knew that I too had received a gift from my brother.
‘THOU SHALT HEAR THE FOOL’S JUDGMENT. . . . ’— PUSHKIN
‘Thou shalt hear the fool’s judgment. . . . ’ You always told the truth, O great singer of ours. You spoke it this time, too.
‘The fool’s judgment and the laughter of the crowd’ . . . who has not known the one and the other?
All that one can, and one ought to bear; and who has the strength, let him despise it!
But there are blows which pierce more cruelly to the very heart. . . . A man has done all that he could; has worked strenuously, lovingly, honestly. . . . And honest hearts turn from him in disgust; honest faces burn with indignation at his name. ‘Be gone! Away with you!’ honest young voices scream at him. ‘We have no need of you, nor of your work. You pollute our dwelling-places. You know us not and understand us not. . . . You are our enemy!’
What is that man to do? Go on working; not try to justify himself, and not even look forward to a fairer judgment.
At one time the tillers of the soil cursed the traveller who brought the potato, the substitute for bread, the poor man’s daily food. . . . They shook the precious gift out of his outstretched hands, flung it in the mud, trampled it underfoot.
Now they are fed with it, and do not even know their benefactor’s name.
So be it! What is his name to them? He, nameless though he be, saves them from hunger.
Let us try only that what we bring should be really good food.
Bitter, unjust reproach on the lips of those you love. . . . But that, too, can be borne. . . .
‘Beat me! but listen!’ said the Athenian leader to the Spartan.
‘Beat me! but be healthy and fed!’ we ought to say.
A CONTENTED MAN
A young man goes skipping and bounding along a street in the capital. His movements are gay and alert; there is a sparkle in his eyes, a smirk on his lips, a pleasing flush on his beaming face. . . . He is all contentment and delight.
What has happened to him? Has he come in for a legacy? Has he been promoted? Is he hastening to meet his beloved? Or is it simply he has had a good breakfast, and the sense of health, the sense of well-fed prosperity, is at work in all his limbs? Surely they have not put on his neck thy lovely, eight-pointed cross, O Polish king, Stanislas?
No. He has hatched a scandal against a friend, has sedulously sown it abroad, has heard it, this same slander, from the lips of another friend, and — has himself believed it!
Oh, how contented! how kind indeed at this minute is this amiable, promising young man!
A RULE OF LIFE
‘If you want to annoy an opponent thoroughly, and even to harm him,’ said a crafty old knave to me, ‘you reproach him with the very defect or vice you are conscious of in yourself. Be indignant . . . and reproach him!
‘To begin with, it will set others thinking you have not that vice.
‘In the second place, your indignation may well be sincere. . . . You can turn to account the pricks of your own conscience.
If you, for instance, are a turncoat, reproach your opponent with having no convictions!
‘If you are yourself slavish at heart, tell him reproachfully that he is slavish . . . the slave of civilisation, of Europe, of Socialism!’
‘One might even say, the slave of anti-slavishness,’ I suggested.
‘You might even do that,’ assented the cunning knave.
THE END OF THE WORLD
I fancied I was somewhere in Russia, in the wilds, in a simple country house.
The room big and low pitched with three windows; the walls whitewashed; no furniture. Before the house a barren plain; gradually sloping downwards, it stretches into the distance; a grey monotonous sky hangs over it, like the canopy of a bed.
I am not alone; there are some ten persons in the room with me. All quite plain people, simply dressed. They walk up and down in silence, as it were stealthily. They avoid one another, and yet are continually looking anxiously at one another.
Not one knows why he has come into this house and what people there are with him. On all the faces uneasiness and despondency . . . all in turn approach the windows and look about intently as though expecting something from without.
Then again they fall to wandering up and down. Among us is a small-sized boy; from time to time he whimpers in the same thin voice, ‘Father, I’m frightened!’ My heart turns sick at his whimper, and I too begin to be afraid . . . of what? I don’t know myself. Only I feel, there is coming nearer and nearer a great, great calamity.
The boy keeps on and on with his wail. Oh, to escape from here! How stifling! How weary! how heavy. . . . But escape is impossible.
That sky is like a shroud. And no wind. . . . Is the air dead or what?
All at once the boy runs up to the window and shrieks in the same piteous voice, ‘Look! look! the earth has fallen away!’
‘How? fallen away?’ Yes; just now there was a plain before the house, and now it stands on a fearful height! The horizon has sunk, has gone down, and from the very house drops an almost overhanging, as it were scooped-out, black precipice.
We all crowded to the window. . . . Horror froze our hearts. ‘Here it is . . . here it is!’ whispers one next me.
And behold, along the whole far boundary of the earth, something began to stir, some sort of small, roundish hillocks began heaving and falling.
‘It is the sea!’ the thought flashed on us all at the same instant. ‘It will swallow us all up directly. . . . Only how can it grow and rise upwards? To this precipice?’
And yet, it grows, grows enormously. . . . Already there are not separate hillocks heaving in the distance. . . . One continuous, monstrous wave embraces the whole circle of the horizon.
It is swooping, swooping, down upon us! In an icy hurricane it flies, swirling in the darkness of hell. Everything shuddered — and there, in this flying mass — was the crash of thunder, the iron wail of thousands of throats. . . .
Ah! what a roaring and moaning! It was the earth howling for terror. . . .
The end of it! the end of all!
The child whimpered once more. . . . I tried to clutch at my companions, but already we were all crushed, buried, drowned, swept away by that pitch-black, icy, thundering wave! Darkness . . . darkness everlasting!
Scarcely breathing, I awoke.
When I lived, many years ago, in Petersburg, every time I chanced to hire a sledge, I used to get into conversation with the driver.
I was particularly fond of talking to the night drivers, poor peasants from the country round, who come to the capital with their little ochre-painted sledges and wretched nags, in the hope of earning food for themselves and rent for their masters.
So one day I engaged such a sledge-driver. . . . He was a lad of twenty, tall and well-made, a splendid fellow with blue eyes and ruddy cheeks; his fair hair curled in little ringlets under the shabby little patched cap that was pulled over his eyes. And how had that little torn smock ever been drawn over those gigantic shoulders!
But the handsome, beardless face of the sledge-driver looked mournful and downcast.
I began to talk to him. There was a sorrowful note in his voice too.
‘What is it, brother?’ I asked him; ‘why aren’t you cheerful? Have you some trouble?’
The lad did not answer me for a minute. ‘Yes, sir, I have,’ he said at last. ‘And such a trouble, there could not be a worse. My wife is dead.’
‘You loved her . . . your wife?’
The lad did not turn to me; he only bent his head a little.
‘I loved her, sir. It’s eight months since then . . . but I can’t forget it. My heart is gnawing at me . . . so it is! And why had she to die? A young thing! strong! . . . In one day cholera snatched her away.’
‘And was she good to you?’
‘Ah, sir!’ the poor fellow sighed heavily, ‘and how happy we were together! She died without me! The first I heard here, they’d buried her already, you know; I hurried off at once to the village, home — I got there — it was past midnight. I went into my hut, stood still in the middle of the room, and softly I whispered, “Masha! eh, Masha!” Nothing but the cricket chirping. I fell a-crying then, sat on the hut floor, and beat on the earth with my fists! “Greedy earth!” says I . . . “You have swallowed her up . . . swallow me too! — Ah, Masha!”
‘Masha!’ he added suddenly in a sinking voice. And without letting go of the cord reins, he wiped the tears out of his eyes with his sleeve, shook it, shrugged his shoulders, and uttered not another word.
As I got out of the sledge, I gave him a few coppers over his fare. He bowed low to me, grasping his cap in both hands, and drove off at a walking pace over the level snow of the deserted street, full of the grey fog of a January frost.
There lived a fool.
For a long time he lived in peace and contentment; but by degrees rumours began to reach him that he was regarded on all sides as a vulgar idiot.
The fool was abashed and began to ponder gloomily how he might put an end to these unpleasant rumours.
A sudden idea, at last, illuminated his dull little brain. . . . And, without the slightest delay, he put it into practice.
A friend met him in the street, and fell to praising a well-known painter. . . .
‘Upon my word!’ cried the fool,’ that painter was out of date long ago . . . you didn’t know it? I should never have expected it of you . . . you are quite behind the times.’
The friend was alarmed, and promptly agreed with the fool.
‘Such a splendid book I read yesterday!’ said another friend to him.
‘Upon my word!’ cried the fool, ‘I wonder you’re not ashamed. That book’s good for nothing; every one’s seen through it long ago. Didn’t you know it? You’re quite behind the times.’
This friend too was alarmed, and he agreed with the fool.
‘What a wonderful fellow my friend N. N. is!’ said a third friend to the fool. ‘Now there’s a really generous creature!’
‘Upon my word!’ cried the fool. ‘N. N., the notorious scoundrel! He swindled all his relations. Every one knows that. You’re quite behind the times.’
The third friend too was alarmed, and he agreed with the fool and deserted his friend. And whoever and whatever was praised in the fool’s presence, he had the same retort for everything.
Sometimes he would add reproachfully: ‘And do you still believe in authorities?’
‘Spiteful! malignant!’ his friends began to say of the fool. ‘But what a brain!’
‘And what a tongue!’ others would add, ‘Oh, yes, he has talent!’
It ended in the editor of a journal proposing to the fool that he should undertake their reviewing column.
And the fool fell to criticising everything and every one, without in the least changing his manner, or his exclamations.
Now he, who once declaimed against authorities, is himself an authority, and the young men venerate him, and fear him.
And what else can they do, poor young men? Though one ought not, as a general rule, to venerate any one . . . but in this case, if one didn’t venerate him, one would find oneself quite behind the times!
Fools have a good time among cowards.
AN EASTERN LEGEND
Who in Bagdad knows not Jaffar, the Sun of the Universe?
One day, many years ago (he was yet a youth), Jaffar was walking in the environs of Bagdad.
Suddenly a hoarse cry reached his ear; some one was calling desperately for help.
Jaffar was distinguished among the young men of his age by prudence and sagacity; but his heart was compassionate, and he relied on his strength.
He ran at the cry, and saw an infirm old man, pinned to the city wall by two brigands, who were robbing him.
Jaffar drew his sabre and fell upon the miscreants: one he killed, the other he drove away.
The old man thus liberated fell at his deliverer’s feet, and, kissing the hem of his garment, cried: ‘Valiant youth, your magnanimity shall not remain unrewarded. In appearance I am a poor beggar; but only in appearance. I am not a common man. Come tomorrow in the early morning to the chief bazaar; I will await you at the fountain, and you shall be convinced of the truth of my words.’
Jaffar thought: ‘In appearance this man is a beggar, certainly; but all sorts of things happen. Why not put it to the test?’ and he answered: ‘Very well, good father; I will come.’
The old man looked into his face, and went away.
The next morning, the sun had hardly risen, Jaffar went to the bazaar. The old man was already awaiting him, leaning with his elbow on the marble basin of the fountain.
In silence he took Jaffar by the hand and led him into a small garden, enclosed on all sides by high walls.
In the very middle of this garden, on a green lawn, grew an extraordinary-looking tree.
It was like a cypress; only its leaves were of an azure hue.
Three fruits — three apples — hung on the slender upward-bent twigs; one was of middle size, long-shaped, and milk-white; the second, large, round, bright-red; the third, small, wrinkled, yellowish.
The whole tree faintly rustled, though there was no wind. It emitted a shrill plaintive ringing sound, as of a glass bell; it seemed it was conscious of Jaffar’s approach.
‘Youth!’ said the old man, ‘pick any one of these apples and know, if you pick and eat the white one, you will be the wisest of all men; if you pick and eat the red, you will be rich as the Jew Rothschild; if you pick and eat the yellow one, you will be liked by old women. Make up your mind! and do not delay. Within an hour the apples will wither, and the tree itself will sink into the dumb depths of the earth!’
Jaffar looked down, and pondered. ‘How am I to act?’ he said in an undertone, as though arguing with himself. ‘If you become too wise, maybe you will not care to live; if you become richer than any one, every one will envy you; I had better pick and eat the third, the withered apple!’
And so he did; and the old man laughed a toothless laugh, and said: ‘O wise young man! You have chosen the better part! What need have you of the white apple? You are wiser than Solomon as it is. And you’ve no need of the red apple either. . . . You will be rich without it. Only your wealth no one will envy.’
‘Tell me, old man,’ said Jaffar, rousing himself, ‘where lives the honoured mother of our Caliph, protected of heaven?’
The old man bowed down to the earth, and pointed out to the young man the way.
Who in Bagdad knows not the Sun of the Universe, the great, the renowned Jaffar?
There was once a town, the inhabitants of which were so passionately fond of poetry, that if some weeks passed by without the appearance of any good new poems, they regarded such a poetic dearth as a public misfortune.
They used at such times to put on their worst clothes, to sprinkle ashes on their heads; and, assembling in crowds in the public squares, to shed tears and bitterly to upbraid the muse who had deserted them.
On one such inauspicious day, the young poet Junius came into a square, thronged with the grieving populace.
With rapid steps he ascended a forum constructed for this purpose, and made signs that he wished to recite a poem.
The lictors at once brandished their fasces. ‘Silence! attention!’ they shouted loudly, and the crowd was hushed in expectation.
‘Friends! Comrades!’ began Junius, in a loud but not quite steady voice:—
‘Friends! Comrades! Lovers of the Muse!
Ye worshippers of beauty and of grace!
Let not a moment’s gloom dismay your souls,
Your heart’s desire is nigh, and light shall banish darkness.’
Junius ceased . . . and in answer to him, from every part of the square, rose a hubbub of hissing and laughter.
Every face, turned to him, glowed with indignation, every eye sparkled with anger, every arm was raised and shook a menacing fist!
‘He thought to dazzle us with that!’ growled angry voices. ‘Down with the imbecile rhymester from the forum! Away with the idiot! Rotten apples, stinking eggs for the motley fool! Give us stones — stones here!’
Junius rushed head over heels from the forum . . . but, before he had got home, he was overtaken by the sound of peals of enthusiastic applause, cries and shouts of admiration.
Filled with amazement, Junius returned to the square, trying however to avoid being noticed (for it is dangerous to irritate an infuriated beast).
And what did he behold?
High above the people, upon their shoulders, on a flat golden shield, wrapped in a purple chlamys, with a laurel wreath on his flowing locks, stood his rival, the young poet Julius. . . . And the populace all round him shouted: ‘Glory! Glory! Glory to the immortal Julius! He has comforted us in our sorrow, in our great woe! He has bestowed on us verses sweeter than honey, more musical than the cymbal’s note, more fragrant than the rose, purer than the azure of heaven! Carry him in triumph, encircle his inspired head with the soft breath of incense, cool his brow with the rhythmic movement of palm-leaves, scatter at his feet all the fragrance of the myrrh of Arabia! Glory!’
Junius went up to one of the applauding enthusiasts. ‘Enlighten me, O my fellow-citizen! what were the verses with which Julius has made you happy? I, alas! was not in the square when he uttered them! Repeat them, if you remember them, pray!’
‘Verses like those I could hardly forget!’ the man addressed responded with spirit. ‘What do you take me for? Listen — and rejoice, rejoice with us!’
‘Lovers of the Muse!’ so the deified Julius had begun. . . .
‘Lovers of the Muse! Comrades! Friends
Of beauty, grace, and music, worshippers!
Let not your hearts by gloom affrighted be!
The wished-for moment comes! and day shall scatter night!’
‘What do you think of them?’
‘Heavens!’ cried Junius; ‘but that’s my poem! Julius must have been in the crowd when I was reciting them; he heard them and repeated them, slightly varying, and certainly not improving, a few expressions.’
‘Aha! Now I recognise you. . . . You are Junius,’ the citizen he had stopped retorted with a scowl on his face. ‘Envious man or fool! . . . note only, luckless wretch, how sublimely Julius has phrased it: “And day shall scatter night!” While you had some such rubbish: “And light shall banish darkness!” What light? What darkness?’
‘But isn’t that just the same?’ Junius was beginning. . . .
‘Say another word,’ the citizen cut him short, ‘I will call upon the people . . . they will tear you to pieces!’
Junius judiciously held his peace, but a grey-headed old man who had heard the conversation went up to the unlucky poet, and laying a hand upon his shoulder, said:
‘Junius! You uttered your own thought, but not at the right moment; and he uttered not his own thought, but at the right moment. Consequently, he is all right; while for you is left the consolations of a good conscience.’
But while his conscience, to the best of its powers — not over successfully, to tell the truth — was consoling Junius as he was shoved on one side — in the distance, amid shouts of applause and rejoicing, in the golden radiance of the all-conquering sun, resplendent in purple, with his brow shaded with laurel, among undulating clouds of lavish incense, with majestic deliberation, like a tsar making a triumphal entry into his kingdom, moved the proudly erect figure of Julius . . . and the long branches of palm rose and fell before him, as though expressing in their soft vibration, in their submissive obeisance, the ever-renewed adoration which filled the hearts of his enchanted fellow-citizens!
I was returning from hunting, and walking along an avenue of the garden, my dog running in front of me.
Suddenly he took shorter steps, and began to steal along as though tracking game.
I looked along the avenue, and saw a young sparrow, with yellow about its beak and down on its head. It had fallen out of the nest (the wind was violently shaking the birch-trees in the avenue) and sat unable to move, helplessly flapping its half-grown wings.
My dog was slowly approaching it, when, suddenly darting down from a tree close by, an old dark-throated sparrow fell like a stone right before his nose, and all ruffled up, terrified, with despairing and pitiful cheeps, it flung itself twice towards the open jaws of shining teeth.
It sprang to save; it cast itself before its nestling . . . but all its tiny body was shaking with terror; its note was harsh and strange. Swooning with fear, it offered itself up!
What a huge monster must the dog have seemed to it! And yet it could not stay on its high branch out of danger. . . . A force stronger than its will flung it down.
My Trésor stood still, drew back. . . . Clearly he too recognised this force.
I hastened to call off the disconcerted dog, and went away, full of reverence.
Yes; do not laugh. I felt reverence for that tiny heroic bird, for its impulse of love.
Love, I thought, is stronger than death or the fear of death. Only by it, by love, life holds together and advances.
A sumptuous, brilliantly lighted hall; a number of ladies and gentlemen.
All the faces are animated, the talk is lively. . . . A noisy conversation is being carried on about a famous singer. They call her divine, immortal. . . . O, how finely yesterday she rendered her last trill!
And suddenly — as by the wave of an enchanter’s wand — from every head and from every face, slipped off the delicate covering of skin, and instantaneously exposed the deadly whiteness of skulls, with here and there the leaden shimmer of bare jaws and gums.
With horror I beheld the movements of those jaws and gums; the turning, the glistening in the light of the lamps and candles, of those lumpy bony balls, and the rolling in them of other smaller balls, the balls of the meaningless eyes.
I dared not touch my own face, dared not glance at myself in the glass.
And the skulls turned from side to side as before. . . . And with their former noise, peeping like little red rags out of the grinning teeth, rapid tongues lisped how marvellously, how inimitably the immortal . . . yes, immortal . . . singer had rendered that last trill!
THE WORKMAN AND THE MAN WITH WHITE HANDS
WORKMAN. Why do you come crawling up to us? What do ye want? You’re none of us. . . . Get along!
MAN WITH WHITE HANDS. I am one of you, comrades!
THE WORKMAN. One of us, indeed! That’s a notion! Look at my hands. D’ye see how dirty they are? And they smell of muck, and of pitch — but yours, see, are white. And what do they smell of?
THE MAN WITH WHITE HANDS (offering his hands). Smell them.
THE WORKMAN (sniffing his hands). That’s a queer start. Seems like a smell of iron.
THE MAN WITH WHITE HANDS. Yes; iron it is. For six long years I wore chains on them.
THE WORKMAN. And what was that for, pray?
THE MAN WITH WHITE HANDS. Why, because I worked for your good; tried to set free the oppressed and the ignorant; stirred folks up against your oppressors; resisted the authorities. . . . So they locked me up.
THE WORKMAN. Locked you up, did they? Serve you right for resisting!
Two Years Later.
THE SAME WORKMAN TO ANOTHER. I say, Pete. . . . Do you remember, the year before last, a chap with white hands talking to you?
THE OTHER WORKMAN. Yes; . . . what of it?
THE FIRST WORKMAN. They’re going to hang him today, I heard say; that’s the order.
THE SECOND WORKMAN. Did he keep on resisting the authorities?
THE FIRST WORKMAN. He kept on.
THE SECOND WORKMAN. Ah! . . . Now, I say, mate, couldn’t we get hold of a bit of the rope they’re going to hang him with? They do say, it brings good luck to a house!
THE FIRST WORKMAN. You’re right there. We’ll have a try for it, mate.
The last days of August. . . . Autumn was already at hand.
The sun was setting. A sudden downpour of rain, without thunder or lightning, had just passed rapidly over our wide plain.
The garden in front of the house glowed and steamed, all filled with the fire of the sunset and the deluge of rain.
She was sitting at a table in the drawing-room, and, with persistent dreaminess, gazing through the half-open door into the garden.
I knew what was passing at that moment in her soul; I knew that, after a brief but agonising struggle, she was at that instant giving herself up to a feeling she could no longer master.
All at once she got up, went quickly out into the garden, and disappeared.
An hour passed . . . a second; she had not returned.
Then I got up, and, getting out of the house, I turned along the walk by which — of that I had no doubt — she had gone.
All was darkness about me; the night had already fallen. But on the damp sand of the path a roundish object could be discerned — bright red even through the mist.
I stooped down. It was a fresh, new-blown rose. Two hours before I had seen this very rose on her bosom.
I carefully picked up the flower that had fallen in the mud, and, going back to the drawing-room, laid it on the table before her chair.
And now at last she came back, and with light footsteps, crossing the whole room, sat down at the table.
Her face was both paler and more vivid; her downcast eyes, that looked somehow smaller, strayed rapidly in happy confusion from side to side.
She saw the rose, snatched it up, glanced at its crushed, muddy petals, glanced at me, and her eyes, brought suddenly to a standstill, were bright with tears.
‘What are you crying for?’ I asked.
‘Why, see this rose. Look what has happened to it.’
Then I thought fit to utter a profound remark.
‘Your tears will wash away the mud,’ I pronounced with a significant expression.
‘Tears do not wash, they burn,’ she answered. And turning to the hearth she flung the rose into the dying flame.
‘Fire burns even better than tears,’ she cried with spirit; and her lovely eyes, still bright with tears, laughed boldly and happily.
I saw that she too had been in the fire.
TO THE MEMORY OF U. P. VREVSKY
On dirt, on stinking wet straw under the shelter of a tumble-down barn, turned in haste into a camp hospital, in a ruined Bulgarian village, for over a fortnight she lay dying of typhus.
She was unconscious, and not one doctor even looked at her; the sick soldiers, whom she had tended as long as she could keep on her legs, in their turn got up from their pestilent litters to lift a few drops of water in the hollow of a broken pot to her parched lips.
She was young and beautiful; the great world knew her; even the highest dignitaries had been interested in her. Ladies had envied her, men had paid her court . . . two or three had loved her secretly and truly. Life had smiled on her; but there are smiles that are worse than tears.
A soft, tender heart . . . and such force, such eagerness for sacrifice! To help those who needed help . . . she knew of no other happiness . . . knew not of it, and had never once known it. Every other happiness passed her by. But she had long made up her mind to that; and all aglow with the fire of unquenchable faith, she gave herself to the service of her neighbours.
What hidden treasure she buried there in the depth of her heart, in her most secret soul, no one ever knew; and now, of course, no one will ever know.
Ay, and what need? Her sacrifice is made . . . her work is done.
But grievous it is to think that no one said thanks even to her dead body, though she herself was shy and shrank from all thanks.
May her dear shade pardon this belated blossom, which I make bold to lay upon her grave!
THE LAST MEETING
We had once been close and warm friends. . . . But an unlucky moment came . . . and we parted as enemies.
Many years passed by. . . . And coming to the town where he lived, I learnt that he was helplessly ill, and wished to see me.
I made my way to him, went into his room. . . . Our eyes met.
I hardly knew him. God! what sickness had done to him!
Yellow, wrinkled, completely bald, with a scanty grey beard, he sat clothed in nothing but a shirt purposely slit open. . . . He could not bear the weight of even the lightest clothes. Jerkily he stretched out to me his fearfully thin hand that looked as if it were gnawed away, with an effort muttered a few indistinct words — whether of welcome or reproach, who can tell? His emaciated chest heaved, and over the dwindled pupils of his kindling eyes rolled two hard-wrung tears of suffering.
My heart sank. . . . I sat down on a chair beside him, and involuntarily dropping my eyes before the horror and hideousness of it, I too held out my hand.
But it seemed to me that it was not his hand that took hold of me.
It seemed to me that between us is sitting a tall, still, white woman. A long robe shrouds her from head to foot. Her deep, pale eyes look into vacancy; no sound is uttered by her pale, stern lips.
This woman has joined our hands. . . . She has reconciled us for ever.
Yes. . . . Death has reconciled us. . . .
I was sitting at the open window . . . in the morning, the early morning of the first of May.
The dawn had not yet begun; but already the dark, warm night grew pale and chill at its approach.
No mist had risen, no breeze was astir, all was colourless and still . . . but the nearness of the awakening could be felt, and the rarer air smelt keen and moist with dew.
Suddenly, at the open window, with a light whirr and rustle, a great bird flew into my room.
I started, looked closely at it. . . . It was not a bird; it was a tiny winged woman, dressed in a narrow long robe flowing to her feet.
She was grey all over, the colour of mother-of-pearl; only the inner side of her wings glowed with the tender flush of an opening rose; a wreath of valley lilies entwined the scattered curls upon her little round head; and, like a butterfly’s feelers, two peacock feathers waved drolly above her lovely rounded brow.
She fluttered twice about the ceiling; her tiny face was laughing; laughing, too, were her great, clear, black eyes.
The gay frolic of her sportive flight set them flashing like diamonds.
She held in her hand the long stalk of a flower of the steppes —‘the Tsar’s sceptre,’ the Russians call it — it is really like a sceptre.
Flying rapidly above me, she touched my head with the flower.
I rushed towards her. . . . But already she had fluttered out of window, and darted away. . . .
In the garden, in a thicket of lilac bushes, a wood-dove greeted her with its first morning warble . . . and where she vanished, the milk-white sky flushed a soft pink.
I know thee, Goddess of Fantasy! Thou didst pay me a random visit by the way; thou hast flown on to the young poets.
O Poesy! Youth! Virginal beauty of woman! Thou couldst shine for me but for a moment, in the early dawn of early spring!
NECESSITAS— VIS— LIBERTAS!
A tall, bony old woman, with iron face and dull, fixed look, moves with long strides, and, with an arm dry as a stick, pushes before her another woman.
This woman — of huge stature, powerful, thick-set, with the muscles of a Hercules, with a tiny head set on a bull neck, and blind — in her turn pushes before her a small, thin girl.
This girl alone has eyes that see; she resists, turns round, lifts fair, delicate hands; her face, full of life, shows impatience and daring. . . . She wants not to obey, she wants not to go, where they are driving her . . . but, still, she has to yield and go.
Necessitas — Vis — Libertas!
Who will, may translate.
Near a large town, along the broad highroad walked an old sick man.
He tottered as he went; his old wasted legs, halting, dragging, stumbling, moved painfully and feebly, as though they did not belong to him; his clothes hung in rags about him; his uncovered head drooped on his breast. . . . He was utterly worn-out.
He sat down on a stone by the wayside, bent forward, leant his elbows on his knees, hid his face in his hands; and through the knotted fingers the tears dropped down on to the grey, dry dust.
He remembered. . . .
Remembered how he too had been strong and rich, and how he had wasted his health, and had lavished his riches upon others, friends and enemies. . . . And here, he had not now a crust of bread; and all had forsaken him, friends even before foes. . . . Must he sink to begging alms? There was bitterness in his heart, and shame.
The tears still dropped and dropped, spotting the grey dust.
Suddenly he heard some one call him by his name; he lifted his weary head, and saw standing before him a stranger.
A face calm and grave, but not stern; eyes not beaming, but clear; a look penetrating, but not unkind.
‘Thou hast given away all thy riches,’ said a tranquil voice. . . . ‘But thou dost not regret having done good, surely?’
‘I regret it not,’ answered the old man with a sigh; ‘but here I am dying now.’
‘And had there been no beggars who held out their hands to thee,’ the stranger went on, ‘thou wouldst have had none on whom to prove thy goodness; thou couldst not have done thy good works.’
The old man answered nothing, and pondered.
‘So be thou also now not proud, poor man,’ the stranger began again. ‘Go thou, hold out thy hand; do thou too give to other good men a chance to prove in deeds that they are good.’
The old man started, raised his eyes . . . but already the stranger had vanished, and in the distance a man came into sight walking along the road.
The old man went up to him, and held out his hand. This man turned away with a surly face, and gave him nothing.
But after him another passed, and he gave the old man some trifling alms.
And the old man bought himself bread with the coppers given him, and sweet to him seemed the morsel gained by begging, and there was no shame in his heart, but the contrary: peace and joy came as a blessing upon him.
I dreamed that we were sitting, a party of twenty, in a big room with open windows.
Among us were women, children, old men. . . . We were all talking of some very well-known subject, talking noisily and indistinctly.
Suddenly, with a sharp, whirring sound, there flew into the room a big insect, two inches long . . . it flew in, circled round, and settled on the wall.
It was like a fly or a wasp. Its body dirt-coloured; of the same colour too its flat, stiff wings; outspread feathered claws, and a head thick and angular, like a dragon-fly’s; both head and claws were bright red, as though steeped in blood.
This strange insect incessantly turned its head up and down, to right and to left, moved its claws . . . then suddenly darted from the wall, flew with a whirring sound about the room, and again settled, again hatefully and loathsomely wriggling all over, without stirring from the spot.
In all of us it excited a sensation of loathing, dread, even terror. . . . No one of us had ever seen anything like it. We all cried: ‘Drive that monstrous thing away!’ and waved our handkerchiefs at it from a distance . . . but no one ventured to go up to it . . . and when the insect began flying, every one instinctively moved away.
Only one of our party, a pale-faced young man, stared at us all in amazement He shrugged his shoulders; he smiled, and positively could not conceive what had happened to us, and why we were in such a state of excitement. He himself did not see an insect at all, did not hear the ill-omened whirr of its wings.
All at once the insect seemed to stare at him, darted off, and dropping on his head, stung him on the forehead, above the eyes. . . . The young man feebly groaned, and fell dead.
The fearful fly flew out at once. . . . Only then we guessed what it was had visited us.
A peasant woman, a widow, had an only son, a young man of twenty, the best workman in the village, and he died.
The lady who was the owner of the village, hearing of the woman’s trouble, went to visit her on the very day of the burial.
She found her at home.
Standing in the middle of her hut, before the table, she was, without haste, with a regular movement of the right arm (the left hung listless at her side), scooping up weak cabbage soup from the bottom of a blackened pot, and swallowing it spoonful by spoonful.
The woman’s face was sunken and dark; her eyes were red and swollen . . . but she held herself as rigid and upright as in church.
‘Heavens!’ thought the lady, ‘she can eat at such a moment . . . what coarse feelings they have really, all of them!’
And at that point the lady recollected that when, a few years before, she had lost her little daughter, nine months old, she had refused, in her grief, a lovely country villa near Petersburg, and had spent the whole summer in town! Meanwhile the woman went on swallowing cabbage soup.
The lady could not contain herself, at last. ‘Tatiana!’ she said . . . ‘Really! I’m surprised! Is it possible you didn’t care for your son? How is it you’ve not lost your appetite? How can you eat that soup!’
‘My Vasia’s dead,’ said the woman quietly, and tears of anguish ran once more down her hollow cheeks. ‘It’s the end of me too, of course; it’s tearing the heart out of me alive. But the soup’s not to be wasted; there’s salt in it.’
The lady only shrugged her shoulders and went away. Salt did not cost her much.
THE REALM OF AZURE
O realm of azure! O realm of light and colour, of youth and happiness! I have beheld thee in dream. We were together, a few, in a beautiful little boat, gaily decked out. Like a swan’s breast the white sail swelled below the streamers frolicking in the wind.
I knew not who were with me; but in all my soul I felt that they were young, light-hearted, happy as I!
But I looked not indeed on them. I beheld all round the boundless blue of the sea, dimpled with scales of gold, and overhead the same boundless sea of blue, and in it, triumphant and mirthful, it seemed, moved the sun.
And among us, ever and anon, rose laughter, ringing and gleeful as the laughter of the gods!
And on a sudden, from one man’s lips or another’s, would flow words, songs of divine beauty and inspiration, and power . . . it seemed the sky itself echoed back a greeting to them, and the sea quivered in unison. . . . Then followed again the blissful stillness.
Riding lightly over the soft waves, swiftly our little boat sped on. No wind drove it along; our own lightly beating hearts guided it. At our will it floated, obedient as a living thing.
We came on islands, enchanted islands, half-transparent with the prismatic lights of precious stones, of amethysts and emeralds. Odours of bewildering fragrance rose from the rounded shores; some of these islands showered on us a rain of roses and valley lilies; from others birds darted up, with long wings of rainbow hues.
The birds flew circling above us; the lilies and roses melted away in the pearly foam that glided by the smooth sides of our boat.
And, with the flowers and the birds, sounds floated to us, sounds sweet as honey . . . women’s voices, one fancied, in them. . . . And all about us, sky, sea, the heaving sail aloft, the gurgling water at the rudder — all spoke of love, of happy love!
And she, the beloved of each of us — she was there . . . unseen and close. One moment more, and behold, her eyes will shine upon thee, her smile will blossom on thee. . . . Her hand will take thy hand and guide thee to the land of joy that fades not!
O realm of azure! In dream have I beheld thee.
TWO RICH MEN
When I hear the praises of the rich man Rothschild, who out of his immense revenues devotes whole thousands to the education of children, the care of the sick, the support of the aged, I admire and am touched.
But even while I admire it and am touched by it, I cannot help recalling a poor peasant family who took an orphan niece into their little tumble-down hut.
‘If we take Katka,’ said the woman, ‘our last farthing will go on her, there won’t be enough to get us salt to salt us a bit of bread.’
‘Well, . . . we’ll do without salt,’ answered the peasant, her husband.
Rothschild is a long way behind that peasant!
THE OLD MAN
Days of darkness, of dreariness, have come. . . . Thy own infirmities, the sufferings of those dear to thee, the chill and gloom of old age. All that thou hast loved, to which thou hast given thyself irrevocably, is falling, going to pieces. The way is all down-hill.
What canst thou do? Grieve? Complain? Thou wilt aid not thyself nor others that way. . . .
On the bowed and withering tree the leaves are smaller and fewer, but its green is yet the same.
Do thou too shrink within, withdraw into thyself, into thy memories, and there, deep down, in the very depths of the soul turned inwards on itself, thy old life, to which thou alone hast the key, will be bright again for thee, in all the fragrance, all the fresh green, and the grace and power of its spring!
But beware . . . look not forward, poor old man!
Two friends were sitting at a table drinking tea.
A sudden hubbub arose in the street. They heard pitiable groans, furious abuse, bursts of malignant laughter.
‘They’re beating some one,’ observed one of the friends, looking out of window.
‘A criminal? A murderer?’ inquired the other. ‘I say, whatever he may be, we can’t allow this illegal chastisement. Let’s go and take his part.’
‘But it’s not a murderer they’re beating.’
‘Not a murderer? Is it a thief then? It makes no difference, let’s go and get him away from the crowd.’
‘It’s not a thief either.’
‘Not a thief? Is it an absconding cashier then, a railway director, an army contractor, a Russian art patron, a lawyer, a Conservative editor, a social reformer? . . . Any way, let’s go and help him!’
‘No . . . it’s a newspaper reporter they’re beating.’
‘A reporter? Oh, I tell you what: we’ll finish our glasses of tea first then.’
THE TWO BROTHERS
It was a vision . . .
Two angels appeared to me . . . two genii.
I say angels, genii, because both had no clothes on their naked bodies, and behind their shoulders rose long powerful wings.
Both were youths. One was rather plump, with soft smooth skin and dark curls. His eyes were brown and full, with thick eyelashes; his look was sly, merry, and eager. His face was charming, bewitching, a little insolent, a little wicked. His full soft crimson lips were faintly quivering. The youth smiled as one possessing power — self-confidently and languidly; a magnificent wreath of flowers rested lightly on his shining tresses, almost touching his velvety eyebrows. A spotted leopard’s skin, pinned up with a golden arrow, hung lightly from his curved shoulder to his rounded thigh. The feathers of his wings were tinged with rose colour; the ends of them were bright red, as though dipped in fresh-spilt scarlet blood. From time to time they quivered rapidly with a sweet silvery sound, the sound of rain in spring.
The other was thin, and his skin yellowish. At every breath his ribs could be seen faintly heaving. His hair was fair, thin, and straight; his eyes big, round, pale grey . . . his glance uneasy and strangely bright. All his features were sharp; the little half-open mouth, with pointed fish-like teeth; the pinched eagle nose, the projecting chin, covered with whitish down. The parched lips never once smiled.
It was a well-cut face, but terrible and pitiless! (Though the face of the first, the beautiful youth, sweet and lovely as it was, showed no trace of pity either.) About the head of the second youth were twisted a few broken and empty ears of corn, entwined with faded grass-stalks. A coarse grey cloth girt his loins; the wings behind, a dull dark grey colour, moved slowly and menacingly.
The two youths seemed inseparable companions. Each of them leaned upon the other’s shoulder. The soft hand of the first lay like a cluster of grapes upon the bony neck of the second; the slender wrist of the second, with its long delicate fingers, coiled like a snake about the girlish bosom of the first.
And I heard a voice. This is what it said: ‘Love and Hunger stand before thee — twin brothers, the two foundation-stones of all things living.
‘All that lives moves to get food, and feeds to bring forth young.
‘Love and Hunger — their aim is one; that life should cease not, the life of the individual and the life of others — the same universal life.’
He had every qualification for becoming the scourge of his family.
He was born healthy, was born wealthy, and throughout the whole of his long life, continuing to be wealthy and healthy, he never committed a single sin, never fell into a single error, never once made a slip or a blunder.
He was irreproachably conscientious! . . . And complacent in the sense of his own conscientiousness, he crushed every one with it, his family, his friends and his acquaintances.
His conscientiousness was his capital . . . and he exacted an exorbitant interest for it.
His conscientiousness gave him the right to be merciless, and to do no good deeds beyond what it dictated to him; and he was merciless, and did no good . . . for good that is dictated is no good at all.
He took no interest in any one except his own exemplary self, and was genuinely indignant if others did not take as studious an interest in it!
At the same time he did not consider himself an egoist, and was particularly severe in censuring, and keen in detecting egoists and egoism. To be sure he was. The egoism of another was a check on his own.
Not recognising the smallest weakness in himself he did not understand, did not tolerate any weakness in any one. He did not, in fact, understand any one or any thing, since he was all, on all sides, above and below, before and behind, encircled by himself.
He did not even understand the meaning of forgiveness. He had never had to forgive himself. . . . What inducement could he have to forgive others?
Before the tribunal of his own conscience, before the face of his own God, he, this marvel, this monster of virtue, raised his eyes heavenwards, and with clear unfaltering voice declared, ‘Yes, I am an exemplary, a truly moral man!’
He will repeat these words on his deathbed, and there will be no throb even then in his heart of stone — in that heart without stain or blemish!
Oh, hideousness of self-complacent, unbending, cheaply bought virtue; thou art almost more revolting than the frank hideousness of vice!
THE BANQUET OF THE SUPREME BEING
One day the Supreme Being took it into his head to give a great banquet in his palace of azure.
All the virtues were invited. Only the virtues . . . men he did not ask . . . only ladies.
There were a great many of them, great and small. The lesser virtues were more agreeable and genial than the great ones; but they all appeared in good humour, and chatted amiably together, as was only becoming for near relations and friends.
But the Supreme Being noticed two charming ladies who seemed to be totally unacquainted.
The Host gave one of the ladies his arm and led her up to the other.
‘Beneficence!’ he said, indicating the first.
‘Gratitude!’ he added, indicating the second.
Both the virtues were amazed beyond expression; ever since the world had stood, and it had been standing a long time, this was the first time they had met.
Yellowish-grey sand, soft at the top, hard, grating below . . . sand without end, where-ever one looks.
And above this sandy desert, above this sea of dead dust, rises the immense head of the Egyptian sphinx.
What would they say, those thick, projecting lips, those immutable, distended, upturned nostrils, and those eyes, those long, half-drowsy, half-watchful eyes under the double arch of the high brows?
Something they would say. They are speaking, truly, but only Oedipus can solve the riddle and comprehend their mute speech.
Stay, but I know those features . . . in them there is nothing Egyptian. White, low brow, prominent cheek-bones, nose short and straight, handsome mouth and white teeth, soft moustache and curly beard, and those wide-set, not large eyes . . . and on the head the cap of hair parted down the middle. . . . But it is thou, Karp, Sidor, Semyon, peasant of Yaroslav, of Ryazan, my countryman, flesh and blood, Russian! Art thou, too, among the sphinxes?
Wouldst thou, too, say somewhat? Yes, and thou, too, art a sphinx.
And thy eyes, those colourless, deep eyes, are speaking too . . . and as mute and enigmatic is their speech.
But where is thy Oedipus?
Alas! it’s not enough to don the peasant smock to become thy Oedipus, oh Sphinx of all the Russias!
I stood before a chain of beautiful mountains forming a semicircle. A young, green forest covered them from summit to base.
Limpidly blue above them was the southern sky; on the heights the sunbeams rioted; below, half-hidden in the grass, swift brooks were babbling.
And the old fable came to my mind, how in the first century after Christ’s birth, a Greek ship was sailing on the Aegean Sea.
The hour was mid-day. . . . It was still weather. And suddenly up aloft, above the pilot’s head, some one called distinctly, ‘When thou sailest by the island, shout in a loud voice, “Great Pan is dead!”’
The pilot was amazed . . . afraid. But when the ship passed the island, he obeyed, he called, ‘Great Pan is dead!’
And, at once, in response to his shout, all along the coast (though the island was uninhabited), sounded loud sobs, moans, long-drawn-out, plaintive wailings. ‘Dead! dead is great Pan!’ I recalled this story . . . and a strange thought came to. ‘What if I call an invocation?’
But in the sight of the exultant beauty around me, I could not think of death, and with all my might I shouted, ‘Great Pan is arisen! arisen!’ And at once, wonder of wonders, in answer to my call, from all the wide half-circle of green mountains came peals of joyous laughter, rose the murmur of glad voices and the clapping of hands. ‘He is arisen! Pan is arisen!’ clamoured fresh young voices. Everything before me burst into sudden laughter, brighter than the sun on high, merrier than the brooks that babbled among the grass. I heard the hurried thud of light steps, among the green undergrowth there were gleams of the marble white of flowing tunics, the living flush of bare limbs. . . . It was the nymphs, nymphs, dryads, Bacchantes, hastening from the heights down to the plain. . . .
All at once they appear at every opening in the woods. Their curls float about their god-like heads, their slender hands hold aloft wreaths and cymbals, and laughter, sparkling, Olympian laughter, comes leaping, dancing with them. . . .
Before them moves a goddess. She is taller and fairer than the rest; a quiver on her shoulder, a bow in her hands, a silvery crescent moon on her floating tresses. . . .
‘Diana, is it thou?’
But suddenly the goddess stopped . . . and at once all the nymphs following her stopped. The ringing laughter died away.
I see the face of the hushed goddess overspread with a deadly pallor; I saw her feet grew rooted to the ground, her lips parted in unutterable horror; her eyes grew wide, fixed on the distance . . . What had she seen? What was she gazing upon?
I turned where she was gazing . . .
And on the distant sky-line, above the low strip of fields, gleamed, like a point of fire the golden cross on the white bell-tower of a Christian church. . . . That cross the goddess had caught sight of.
I heard behind me a long, broken sigh, like the quiver of a broken string, and when I turned again, no trace was left of the nymphs. . . . The broad forest was green as before, and only here and there among the thick network of branches, were fading gleams of something white; whether the nymphs’ white robes, or a mist rising from the valley, I know not.
But how I mourned for those vanished goddesses!
FRIEND AND ENEMY
A prisoner, condemned to confinement for life, broke out of his prison and took to head-long flight. . . . After him, just on his heels flew his gaolers in pursuit.
He ran with all his might. . . . His pursuers began to be left behind.
But behold, before him was a river with precipitous banks, a narrow, but deep river. . . . And he could not swim!
A thin rotten plank had been thrown across from one bank to the other. The fugitive already had his foot upon it. . . . But it so happened that just there beside the river stood his best friend and his bitterest enemy.
His enemy said nothing, he merely folded his arms; but the friend shrieked at the top of his voice: ‘Heavens! What are you doing? Madman, think what you’re about! Don’t you see the plank’s utterly rotten? It will break under your weight, and you will inevitably perish!’
‘But there is no other way to cross . . . and don’t you hear them in pursuit?’ groaned the poor wretch in despair, and he stepped on to the plank.
‘I won’t allow it! . . . No, I won’t allow you to rush to destruction!’ cried the zealous friend, and he snatched the plank from under the fugitive. The latter instantly fell into the boiling torrent, and was drowned.
The enemy smiled complacently, and walked away; but the friend sat down on the bank, and fell to weeping bitterly over his poor . . . poor friend!
To blame himself for his destruction did not however occur to him . . . not for an instant.
‘He would not listen to me! He would not listen!’ he murmured dejectedly.
‘Though indeed,’ he added at last. ‘He would have had, to be sure, to languish his whole life long in an awful prison! At any rate, he is out of suffering now! He is better off now! Such was bound to be his fate, I suppose!
‘And yet I am sorry, from humane feeling!’
And the kind soul continued to sob inconsolably over the fate of his misguided friend.
I saw myself, in dream, a youth, almost a boy, in a low-pitched wooden church. The slim wax candles gleamed, spots of red, before the old pictures of the saints.
A ring of coloured light encircled each tiny flame. Dark and dim it was in the church. . . . But there stood before me many people. All fair-haired, peasant heads. From time to time they began swaying, falling, rising again, like the ripe ears of wheat, when the wind of summer passes in slow undulation over them.
All at once some man came up from behind and stood beside me.
I did not turn towards him; but at once I felt that this man was Christ.
Emotion, curiosity, awe overmastered me suddenly. I made an effort . . . and looked at my neighbour.
A face like every one’s, a face like all men’s faces. The eyes looked a little upwards, quietly and intently. The lips closed, but not compressed; the upper lip, as it were, resting on the lower; a small beard parted in two. The hands folded and still. And the clothes on him like every one’s.
‘What sort of Christ is this?’ I thought. ‘Such an ordinary, ordinary man! It can’t be!’
I turned away. But I had hardly turned my eyes away from this ordinary man when I felt again that it really was none other than Christ standing beside me.
Again I made an effort over myself. . . . And again the same face, like all men’s faces, the same everyday though unknown features.
And suddenly my heart sank, and I came to myself. Only then I realised that just such a face — a face like all men’s faces — is the face of Christ.
Have you seen an old grey stone on the seashore, when at high tide, on a sunny day of spring, the living waves break upon it on all sides — break and frolic and caress it — and sprinkle over its sea-mossed head the scattered pearls of sparkling foam?
The stone is still the same stone; but its sullen surface blossoms out into bright colours.
They tell of those far-off days when the molten granite had but begun to harden, and was all aglow with the hues of fire.
Even so of late was my old heart surrounded, broken in upon by a rush of fresh girls’ souls . . . and under their caressing touch it flushed with long-faded colours, the traces of burnt-out fires!
The waves have ebbed back . . . but the colours are not yet dull, though a cutting wind is drying them.
I stood on the top of a sloping hillside; before me, a gold and silver sea of shifting colour, stretched the ripe rye.
But no little wavelets ran over that sea; no stir of wind was in the stifling air; a great storm was gathering.
Near me the sun still shone with dusky fire; but beyond the rye, not very far away, a dark-blue storm-cloud lay, a menacing mass over full half of the horizon.
All was hushed . . . all things were faint under the malignant glare of the last sun rays. No sound, no sight of a bird; even the sparrows hid themselves. Only somewhere close by, persistently a great burdock leaf flapped and whispered.
How strong was the smell of the wormwood in the hedges! I looked at the dark-blue mass . . . there was a vague uneasiness at my heart. ‘Come then, quickly, quickly!’ was my thought, ‘flash, golden snake, and roll thunder! move, hasten, break into floods, evil storm-cloud; cut short this agony of suspense!’
But the storm-cloud did not move. It lay as before, a stifling weight upon the hushed earth . . . and only seemed to swell and darken.
And lo, over its dead dusky-blue, something darted in smooth, even flight, like a white handkerchief or a handful of snow. It was a white dove flying from the direction of the village.
It flew, flew on straight . . . and plunged into the forest. Some instants passed by — still the same cruel hush. . . . But, look! Two handkerchiefs gleam in the air, two handfuls of snow are floating back, two white doves are winging their way homewards with even flight.
And now at last the storm has broken, and the tumult has begun!
I could hardly get home. The wind howled, tossing hither and thither in frenzy; before it scudded low red clouds, torn, it seemed, into shreds; everything was whirled round in confusion; the lashing rain streamed in furious torrents down the upright trunks, flashes of lightning were blinding with greenish light, sudden peals of thunder boomed like cannon-shots, the air was full of the smell of sulphur. . . .
But under the overhanging roof, on the sill of the dormer window, side by side sat two white doves, the one who flew after his mate, and the mate he brought back, saved, perhaps, from destruction.
They sit ruffling up their feathers, and each feels his mate’s wing against his wing. . . .
They are happy! And I am happy, seeing them. . . . Though I am alone . . . alone, as always.
How empty, dull, and useless is almost every day when it is spent! How few the traces it leaves behind it! How meaningless, how foolish those hours as they coursed by one after another!
And yet it is man’s wish to exist; he prizes life, he rests hopes on it, on himself, on the future. . . . Oh, what blessings he looks for from the future!
But why does he imagine that other coming days will not be like this day he has just lived through?
Nay, he does not even imagine it. He likes not to think at all, and he does well.
‘Ah, tomorrow, tomorrow!’ he comforts himself, till ‘tomorrow’ pitches him into the grave.
Well, and once in the grave, thou hast no choice, thou doest no more thinking.
I dreamed I had come into an immense underground temple with lofty arched roof. It was filled with a sort of underground uniform light.
In the very middle of the temple sat a majestic woman in a flowing robe of green colour. Her head propped on her hand, she seemed buried in deep thought.
At once I was aware that this woman was Nature herself; and a thrill of reverent awe sent an instantaneous shiver through my inmost soul.
I approached the sitting figure, and making a respectful bow, ‘O common Mother of us all!’ I cried, ‘of what is thy meditation? Is it of the future destinies of man thou ponderest? or how he may attain the highest possible perfection and happiness?’
The woman slowly turned upon me her dark menacing eyes. Her lips moved, and I heard a ringing voice like the clang of iron.
‘I am thinking how to give greater power to the leg-muscles of the flea, that he may more easily escape from his enemies. The balance of attack and defence is broken. . . . It must be restored.’
‘What,’ I faltered in reply, ‘what is it thou art thinking upon? But are not we, men, thy favourite children?’
The woman frowned slightly. ‘All creatures are my children,’ she pronounced, ‘and I care for them alike, and all alike I destroy.’
‘But right . . . reason . . . justice . . . ’ I faltered again.
‘Those are men’s words,’ I heard the iron voice saying. ‘I know not right nor wrong. . . . Reason is no law for me — and what is justice? — I have given thee life, I shall take it away and give to others, worms or men . . . I care not. . . . Do thou meanwhile look out for thyself, and hinder me not!’
I would have retorted . . . but the earth uttered a hollow groan and shuddered, and I awoke.
‘It happened in 1803,’ began my old acquaintance, ‘not long before Austerlitz. The regiment in which I was an officer was quartered in Moravia.
‘We had strict orders not to molest or annoy the inhabitants; as it was, they regarded us very dubiously, though we were supposed to be allies.
‘I had a servant, formerly a serf of my mother’s, Yegor, by name. He was a quiet, honest fellow; I had known him from a child, and treated him as a friend.
‘Well, one day, in the house where I was living, I heard screams of abuse, cries, and lamentations; the woman of the house had had two hens stolen, and she laid the theft at my servant’s door. He defended himself, called me to witness. . . . “Likely he’d turn thief, he, Yegor Avtamonov!” I assured the woman of Yegor’s honesty, but she would not listen to me.
‘All at once the thud of horses’ hoofs was heard along the street; the commander-inchief was riding by with his staff. He was riding at a walking pace, a stout, corpulent man, with drooping head, and epaulettes hanging on his breast.
‘The woman saw him, and rushing before his horse, flung herself on her knees, and, bare-headed and all in disorder, she began loudly complaining of my servant, pointing at him.
‘“General!” she screamed; “your Excellency! make an inquiry! help me! save me! this soldier has robbed me!”
‘Yegor stood at the door of the house, bolt upright, his cap in his hand, he even arched his chest and brought his heels together like a sentry, and not a word! Whether he was abashed at all the general’s suite halting there in the middle of the street, or stupefied by the calamity facing him, I can’t say, but there stood my poor Yegor, blinking and white as chalk!
‘The commander-inchief cast an abstracted and sullen glance at him, growled angrily, “Well?” . . . Yegor stood like a statue, showing his teeth as if he were grinning! Looking at him from the side, you’d say the fellow was laughing!
‘Then the commander-inchief jerked out: “Hang him!” spurred his horse, and moved on, first at a walking-pace, then at a quick trot. The whole staff hurried after him; only one adjutant turned round on his saddle and took a passing glance at Yegor.
‘To disobey was impossible. . . . Yegor was seized at once and led off to execution.
‘Then he broke down altogether, and simply gasped out twice, “Gracious heavens! gracious heavens!” and then in a whisper, “God knows, it wasn’t me!”
‘Bitterly, bitterly he cried, saying good-bye to me. I was in despair. “Yegor! Yegor!” I cried, “how came it you said nothing to the general?”
‘“God knows, it wasn’t me!” the poor fellow repeated, sobbing. The woman herself was horrified. She had never expected such a dreadful termination, and she started howling on her own account! She fell to imploring all and each for mercy, swore the hens had been found, that she was ready to clear it all up. . . .
‘Of course, all that was no sort of use. Those were war-times, sir! Discipline! The woman sobbed louder and louder.
‘Yegor, who had received absolution from the priest, turned to me.
‘“Tell her, your honour, not to upset herself. . . . I’ve forgiven her.”’
My acquaintance, as he repeated this, his servant’s last words, murmured, ‘My poor Yegor, dear fellow, a real saint!’ and the tears trickled down his old cheeks.
WHAT SHALL I THINK? . . .
What shall I think when I come to die, if only I am in a condition to think anything then?
Shall I think how little use I have made of my life, how I have slumbered, dozed through it, how little I have known how to enjoy its gifts?
‘What? is this death? So soon? Impossible! Why, I have had no time to do anything yet. . . . I have only been making ready to begin!’
Shall I recall the past, and dwell in thought on the few bright moments I have lived through — on precious images and faces?
Will my ill deeds come back to my mind, and will my soul be stung by the burning pain of remorse too late?
Shall I think of what awaits me beyond the grave . . . and in truth does anything await me there?
No. . . . I fancy I shall try not to think, and shall force myself to take interest in some trifle simply to distract my own attention from the menacing darkness, which is black before me.
I once saw a dying man who kept complaining they would not let him have hazel-nuts to munch! . . . and only in the depths of his fast-dimming eyes, something quivered and struggled like the torn wing of a bird wounded to death. . . .
‘HOW FAIR, HOW FRESH WERE THE ROSES . . . ’
Somewhere, sometime, long, long ago, I read a poem. It was soon forgotten . . . but the first line has stuck in my memory —
‘How fair, how fresh were the roses . . . ’
Now is winter; the frost has iced over the window-panes; in the dark room burns a solitary candle. I sit huddled up in a corner; and in my head the line keeps echoing and echoing —
‘How fair, how fresh were the roses . . . ’
And I see myself before the low window of a Russian country house. The summer evening is slowly melting into night, the warm air is fragrant of mignonette and lime-blossom; and at the window, leaning on her arm, her head bent on her shoulder, sits a young girl, and silently, intently gazes into the sky, as though looking for new stars to come out. What candour, what inspiration in the dreamy eyes, what moving innocence in the parted questioning lips, how calmly breathes that still-growing, still-untroubled bosom, how pure and tender the profile of the young face! I dare not speak to her; but how dear she is to me, how my heart beats!
‘How fair, how fresh were the roses . . . ’
But here in the room it gets darker and darker. . . . The candle burns dim and gutters, dancing shadows quiver on the low ceiling, the cruel crunch of the frost is heard outside, and within the dreary murmur of old age. . . .
‘How fair, how fresh were the roses . . . ’
There rise up before me other images. I hear the merry hubbub of home life in the country. Two flaxen heads, bending close together, look saucily at me with their bright eyes, rosy cheeks shake with suppressed laughter, hands are clasped in warm affection, young kind voices ring one above the other; while a little farther, at the end of the snug room, other hands, young too, fly with unskilled fingers over the keys of the old piano, and the Lanner waltz cannot drown the hissing of the patriarchal samovar . . .
‘How fair, how fresh were the roses . . . ’
The candle flickers and goes out. . . . Whose is that hoarse and hollow cough? Curled up, my old dog lies, shuddering at my feet, my only companion. . . . I’m cold . . . I’m frozen . . . and all of them are dead . . . dead . . .
‘How fair, how fresh were the roses . . . ’
ON THE SEA
I was going from Hamburg to London in a small steamer. We were two passengers; I and a little female monkey, whom a Hamburg merchant was sending as a present to his English partner.
She was fastened by a light chain to one of the seats on deck, and was moving restlessly and whining in a little plaintive pipe like a bird’s.
Every time I passed by her she stretched out her little, black, cold hand, and peeped up at me out of her little mournful, almost human eyes. I took her hand, and she ceased whining and moving restlessly about.
There was a dead calm. The sea stretched on all sides like a motionless sheet of leaden colour. It seemed narrowed and small; a thick fog overhung it, hiding the very mast-tops in cloud, and dazing and wearying the eyes with its soft obscurity. The sun hung, a dull red blur in this obscurity; but before evening it glowed with strange, mysterious, lurid light.
Long, straight folds, like the folds in some heavy silken stuff, passed one after another over the sea from the ship’s prow, and broadening as they passed, and wrinkling and widening, were smoothed out again with a shake, and vanished. The foam flew up, churned by the tediously thudding wheels; white as milk, with a faint hiss it broke up into serpentine eddies, and then melted together again and vanished too, swallowed up by the mist.
Persistent and plaintive as the monkey’s whine rang the small bell at the stern.
From time to time a porpoise swam up, and with a sudden roll disappeared below the scarcely ruffled surface.
And the captain, a silent man with a gloomy, sunburnt face, smoked a short pipe and angrily spat into the dull, stagnant sea.
To all my inquiries he responded by a disconnected grumble. I was obliged to turn to my sole companion, the monkey.
I sat down beside her; she ceased whining, and again held out her hand to me.
The clinging fog oppressed us both with its drowsy dampness; and buried in the same unconscious dreaminess, we sat side by side like brother and sister.
I smile now . . . but then I had another feeling.
We are all children of one mother, and I was glad that the poor little beast was soothed and nestled so confidingly up to me, as to a brother.
Calmly and gracefully thou movest along the path of life, tearless and smileless, and scarce a heedless glance of indifferent attention ruffles thy calm.
Thou art good and wise . . . and all things are remote from thee, and of no one hast thou need.
Thou art fair, and no one can say, whether thou prizest thy beauty or not. No sympathy hast thou to give; none dost thou desire.
Thy glance is deep, and no thought is in it; in that clear depth is emptiness.
So in the Elysian field, to the solemn strains of Gluck’s melodies, move without grief or bliss the graceful shades.
Stay! as I see thee now, abide for ever in my memory!
From thy lips the last inspired note has broken. No light, no flash is in thy eyes; they are dim, weighed down by the load of happiness, of the blissful sense of the beauty, it has been thy glad lot to express — the beauty, groping for which thou hast stretched out thy yearning hands, thy triumphant, exhausted hands!
What is the radiance — purer and higher than the sun’s radiance — all about thy limbs, the least fold of thy raiment?
What god’s caressing breath has set thy scattered tresses floating?
His kiss burns on thy brow, white now as marble.
This is it, the mystery revealed, the mystery of poesy, of life, of love! This, this is immortality! Other immortality there is none, nor need be. For this instant thou art immortal.
It passes, and once more thou art a grain of dust, a woman, a child. . . . But why need’st thou care! For this instant, thou art above, thou art outside all that is passing, temporary. This thy instant will never end. Stay! and let me share in thy immortality; shed into my soul the light of thy eternity!
I used to know a monk, a hermit, a saint. He lived only for the sweetness of prayer; and steeping himself in it, he would stand so long on the cold floor of the church that his legs below the knees grew numb and senseless as blocks of wood. He did not feel them; he stood on and prayed.
I understood him, and perhaps envied him; but let him too understand me and not condemn me; me, for whom his joys are inaccessible.
He has attained to annihilating himself, his hateful ego; but I too; it’s not from egoism, I pray not.
My ego, may be, is even more burdensome and more odious to me, than his to him.
He has found wherein to forget himself . . . but I, too, find the same, though not so continuously.
He does not lie . . . but neither do I lie.
WE WILL STILL FIGHT ON
What an insignificant trifle may sometimes transform the whole man!
Full of melancholy thought, I walked one day along the highroad.
My heart was oppressed by a weight of gloomy apprehension; I was overwhelmed by dejection. I raised my head. . . . Before me, between two rows of tall poplars, the road darted like an arrow into the distance.
And across it, across this road, ten paces from me, in the golden light of the dazzling summer sunshine, a whole family of sparrows hopped one after another, hopped saucily, drolly, self-reliantly!
One of them, in particular, skipped along sideways with desperate energy, puffing out his little bosom and chirping impudently, as though to say he was not afraid of any one! A gallant little warrior, really!
And, meanwhile, high overhead in the heavens hovered a hawk, destined, perhaps, to devour that little warrior.
I looked, laughed, shook myself, and the mournful thoughts flew right away: pluck, daring, zeal for life I felt anew. Let him, too, hover over me, my hawk. . . . We will fight on, and damn it all!
Whatever a man pray for, he prays for a miracle. Every prayer reduces to this: ‘Great God, grant that twice two be not four.’
Only such a prayer is a real prayer from person to person. To pray to the Cosmic Spirit, to the Higher Being, to the Kantian, Hegelian, quintessential, formless God is impossible and unthinkable.
But can even a personal, living, imaged God make twice two not be four?
Every believer is bound to answer, he can, and is bound to persuade himself of it.
But if reason sets him revolting against this senselessness?
Then Shakespeare comes to his aid: ‘There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio,’ etc.
And if they set about confuting him in the name of truth, he has but to repeat the famous question, ‘What is truth?’ And so, let us drink and be merry, and say our prayers.
THE RUSSIAN TONGUE
In days of doubt, in days of dreary musings on my country’s fate, thou alone art my stay and support, mighty, true, free Russian speech! But for thee, how not fall into despair, seeing all that is done at home? But who can think that such a tongue is not the gift of a great people!
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Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 12:01