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The Hermit by Maksim Gorky

 

The forest ravine slopes gently down to the yellow waters of the Oka; a brook rushes along its bottom, hiding in the grass; above the ravine, unnoticed by day and tremulous by night, flows the blue river of the sky--the stars play in it like golden minnows. Rank, tangled underbrush grows on the southeastern bank of the ravine. Under the steep side of it, in the thicket, a cave is dug out, closed by a door made of branches, ingeniously tied together; before the door is an earthen platform about seven feet square, buttressed by cobbles. From it, heavy boulders descend in a stairway towards the brook. Three young trees grow in front of the cave: a lime, a birch, and a maple.

Everything around the cave is made sturdily and with care, as though it were fashioned to last a life-time. The interior has the same air of sturdiness: the sides and the vault are covered with mats made of willow withies; the mats are plastered with clay mixed with the silt of the brook; a small stove rises to the left of the entrance; in the corner is an altar, covered by heavy matting in place of brocade; on the altar, in an iron sconce, is an oil-burner; its bluish flame flickers in the dusk and is hardly visible.

Three black icons stand behind the altar; bundles of new bast shoes hang on the walls; strips of bast lie about on the floor. The cave is permeated with the sweet smell of dry herbs.

The owner of this abode is an old man of middle height, thick-set, but crumpled and misshapen. His face, red as a brick, is hideous. A deep scar runs across the left cheek from ear to chin, giving a twist to his mouth and lending it an expression of painful scorn. The dark eyes are ravaged by trachoma; they are without lashes and have red scars instead of lids; the hair on the head has fallen out in tufts and there are two bald patches on the bumpy skull, a small one on the crown, and another which has laid bare the left ear. In spite of all this the old man is spry and nimble as a polecat; his naked, disfigured eyes have a kindly look; when he laughs, the blemishes of his face almost vanish in the soft abundance of his wrinkles. He wears a good shirt of unbleached linen, blue calico trousers and slippers made of cord. His legs are wrapped in hareskins instead of leggings.

I came to him on a bright May day and we made friends at once. He had me stay the night, and on my second visit told me the story of his life.

"I was a sawyer," he said, lying under an elder-bush, having pulled off his shirt to warm his chest, muscular as a youngster's, in the sun. "For seventeen years I sawed logs; see the mess a saw made of my face! That's what they called me, Savel the Sawyer. Sawing is no light job, my friend--you stand there, waving your hands about in the sky, a net over your face, logs over your head and the saw-dust so thick you can't see, ugh! I was a gay lad, a playful one, and I lived like a tumbler. There is, you know, a certain type of pigeon: they soar as high up as they can into the sky, into the utmost depth and there they fold their wings, tuck their heads under them-and bang! down they come! Some get killed that way, hitting the roofs, or the ground. Well, that's what I was like. Gay and harmless, a blessed one; women, girls were as fond of me as of sugar, 'pon my word! What a life it was! It does one good to remember it."

And rolling from side to side he laughed the clear laughter of youth, except for a slight rattle in the throat, and the brook echoed his laugh. The wind breathed warmly, golden reflections glided on the velvety surface of the spring foliage.

"Well, let's have a go at it, friend," Savel suggested. "Bring it on!"

I went to the brook, where a bottle of vodka had been put to cool and we each had a glass, following it up with cracknels and fish. The old man chuckled with rapture.

"A fine invention that, drink!" And passing his tongue over his gray, tousled mustache: "A fine thing! Can't do with a lot of it, but in small quantities it's great! They say the devil was first to make vodka. Well, I'll say thanks even to the devil for a good thing."

He half-closed his eyes, remained silent for a moment and then exclaimed, indignantly:

"Yes, they did hurt me to the core, all the same, they did. Ah, friend, how people have grown into the habit of hurting one another, it's a shame! Conscience lives among us like a homeless pup, it does! It isn't welcome anywhere. Well, never mind, I'll go on with my story. I married and all was as it should be; the wife was called Natalia, a beautiful, soft creature. I got on with her all right; she was a bit of a philanderer, but I'm not all too virtuous myself, not exactly a stay at home, and when there is a nicer, kinder woman about, to her I go. That is all only too human, there's no running away from it, and in one's lusty years, what better can one do? At times when I returned home bringing some money or other goods with me, people would laugh! 'Savel, you should tie your wife's skirts before you leave your house!' Jeering, they were. Well, for decency's sake, I'd beat her a bit and then give her a present to make up for it and just scold her gently: 'You fool,' I'd say, 'why do you make people laugh at me? Am I not your pal, instead of your enemy?' She'd cry, of course, and say they were lying. I know, too, that people are fond of lies, but you can't fool me, all the same: the night gives away the truth about a woman--you can feel it, at night, if she's been in another man's arms or not."

Something rustled in the bushes behind him.

"Ps-sh!" the old man shook a branch of the elder. "A hedgehog lives right here, I pricked my foot on it the other day as I went to wash in the brook; I did not see it in the grass and the needle went straight into my toe."

He smiled as he looked at the bush and then, straightening himself out, went on.

"Yes, friend. So I was saying how deeply they had hurt me, yes, how deeply. I had a daughter, Tasha, Tatyana. I may say in a word, without boasting, she was a joy to the whole world, that daughter. A star. I used to dress her up in fine clothes--a heavenly beauty she was when she came out on a holiday. Her gait, her bearing, her eyes Our teacher Kuzmin--Trunk was his nickname, for he was a clumsy-looking chap--called her by some whimsical name, and when he got drunk he would weep and beg me to take care of her. So I did. But luck had always favored me--and that never makes one popular with other men, it just breeds envy. So the rumor was spread, that Tasha and I"

He fidgeted uneasily on the grass, took his shirt from the bush, put it on and carefully buttoned up the collar. His face twitched nervously, he pressed his lips together and the sparse bristles of his gray brows descended on the naked eyes.

Twilight was setting in. There was a freshness in the air. A quail was crying shrilly close by: "Pit-pit wet my lip" The old man was peering down into the ravine.

"Well, so that set the ball rolling. Kuzmin, the priest, the clerk, some of the men and most of the women began wagging their tongues, hissing and hooting and hauling a man over the coals. It is always a treat for us to bait a man; we love it. Tasha sat weeping, unable to leave the house, for fear of the jeering of street urchins--everybody was having the time of their lives. So I said to Tasha: 'Come, let us leave.' "

"And your wife?"

"The wife?" the old man repeated with astonishment. "But she was dead by then. She just gave a sigh and died one night. Yes--yes. That was long before all this happened. Tasha was only twelve. She was my enemy, a bad woman, unfaithful."

"But you were praising her a moment ago," I reminded him. This did not embarrass him at all. He scratched his neck, lifted his beard with his palm and gazing at it, said calmly:

"Well, what if I did praise her? No one remains bad all his life, and even a bad person is often worthy of praise. A human being is not a stone and even a stone changes with time. Do not, however, get any wrong ideas into your head--she died a natural death, all right. It must have been her heart, her heart played tricks on her. Sometimes at night we would be having a bit of fun and she would suddenly go off in a dead faint. Quite terrible it was!"

His soft husky voice had a melodious sound; it mingled tirelessly and intimately in the warm evening air with the smell of grass, the sighs of the wind, the rustle of leaves, the soft patter of the brook on the pebbles. Had he kept still, the night would not have been so complete, so beautiful, so sweet to the soul.

Savel spoke with a remarkable ease, showing no effort in finding the right words, dressing up his thoughts lovingly, as a little girl does her dolls. I had listened to many a Russian talker, men who, intoxicated with flowery words, often, almost always, lose the fine thread of truth in the intricate web of speech. This one spun his yarn with such convincing simplicity, with such limpid sincerity, that I feared to interrupt him with questions. Watching the play of his words, I realized that the old man was the possessor of living gems, able to conceal all filthy and criminal lies with their bewitching power; I realized all that and nevertheless yielded to the magic of his speech.

"The whole dirty business began then, my friend: a doctor was summoned, he examined Tasha thoroughly with his shameless eyes, and he had another fop with him, a baldish man with gold buttons--an investigator, I suppose, asking questions: as to who and when? She just kept silent, she was so ashamed. They arrested me and took me to the district prison. There I sat. The bald one says to me: 'Confess and you'll get off lightly!' So I reply obligingly: 'Let me go to Kiev, Your Honor, to the holy relics, and pray for the forgiveness of my sins!' 'Ah,' he said, 'now you've confessed all right!' Believing he'd caught me, the bald cat! I hadn't confessed anything, of course, just dropped the words from sheer boredom. I was very bored in jail, uncomfortable, too, what with the thieves and murderers and other foul people around; besides, I couldn't help wondering what they were doing to Tasha. The whole blasted business lasted over a year before the trial came. And then, behold, Tasha appeared at it, with gloves and smart little boots and all--very unusual! A blue frock like a cloud--her soul shining through it. All the jury staring at her and the crowd and all of it just like a dream, my friend. At Tanya's side--Madame Antzyferova, our lady of the manor, a woman sharp as a pike, sly as a fox. Hm, I thought to myself--this one will put me to the rack and worry me to death."

He laughed with great good humor.

"She had a son, Matvey Alexevich--I always believed him to be a bit wrong in the head--a dull youth. Not a drop of blood in his face, a pair of spectacles on his nose, hair down to his shoulders, no beard to speak of, and all he ever did was to write down songs and fairy-tales in a little book. A heart of gold--he'd give you anything you asked for. The peasants around all made use of it: one would ask for a scythe, the other for some timber, the third for bread, taking anything going whether they wanted it or not. I would say to him: 'Why do you give everything away, Alexevich? Your fathers and grandfathers piled it all up, grew rich, stripped people to the skin regardless of sin, and you give it all away without rhyme or reason. Aren't you wasting human labor?'--'I feel I must do it!' he said. Not a very clever lad, but gentle natured, anyway. Later on the Deputy Governor packed him off to China--he was rude to the Governor, so to China he had to go.

"Well--then came the trial. My counsel spoke for two hours, waving his hands about. Tasha stuck up for me, too."

"But was there ever actually anything between you two?"

He thought for a moment as though trying to remember, then said, unconcernedly watching the flight of a hawk with his naked eyes:

'That happens sometimes--between rathers and daughters. There was even a saint once who lived with two of them, and the prophets Abraham and Isaac were born to them. I will not say I did so myself. I played about with her, that is true, in the long, dreary, winter nights. Dreary they are indeed, all the more so for one who is used to tramping around the world--going here and there and everywhere, as was my case. I used to make up stories for her--I know hundreds of fairy-tales. Well, you know, a tale is a thing of fancy. And it warms up the blood. And Tasha" He shut his eyes and sighed, shaking his head.

"An extraordinary beauty she was! And I was extraordinary with women, mad about them, I was."

The old man became excited and went on with pride and rapture, choking over his words:

"See, friend: I'm now a man of sixty-seven and still I can get all the pleasure I want out of any woman, that's the truth! About five years after all this happened how many a wench would beg me: 'Savel, dear, do let me go, I'm quite played out.' I'd take pity on her and do so and she would come back again in a few days. 'Well, so here you are again, are you?' I would say. A female, my friend, is a great thing, the whole world raves about her--the beast and the bird and the tiny moth--all just live for her alone. What else is there to live for?"

"What, anyway, did your daughter say at the trial?"

"Tasha? She made up a story--or perhaps it was the Antzyferova woman who suggested it to her (I'd once done her a service of sorts)--that she had brought the injury upon herself and that I was not to blame. Well, I was let off. It's all a put-up job with them, a thing of no account, just to show what a watch they keep on the laws. It's all a fraud, all these laws, orders and papers; it's all unnecessary. Let everyone live as he pleases, that would be cheaper and pleasanter. Here am I, living and not getting into anyone's way and not pushing forward."

"And what about murderers?"

"They should be killed," Savel decided. "The man who kills should be done away with on the spot with no nonsense about it! A man is not a mosquito or a fly, he is no worse than you, you scum."

"And--thieves?"

"That's an odd idea! Why should there be any thieves, if there is nothing to steal? Now, what would you take from me? I haven't any too much, so there is no envy, no greed. Why should there be any thieves? There are thieves where there is a surplus of things; when he sees plenty he just grabs a bit."

It was dark by now, night had poured into the ravine. An owl hooted three times. The old man hearkened to its eerie cries and said with a smile:

"It lives close by in a hollow tree. Sometimes it gets caught by the sun, can't hide in time, and just stays out in the light. I pass by and stick out my tongue at it. It can't see a thing, just sits quite still. Lucky if the smaller birds don't catch sight of it."

I asked how he had come to be a hermit.

"Just like that: wandered and wandered around and then stopped short. All because of Tasha. The Antzyferova woman played me a trick there--did not let me see Tasha after the trial. 'I know the whole truth,' she said, 'and you should be grateful to me for escaping hard labor, but I won't give you back your daughter.' A fool she was, of course. I hovered around for a time, but no, there was nothing doing! So off I went--to Kiev and Siberia, earned a lot of money there and came home. The Antzyferova woman had been run over and killed by a train, and as for Tasha, she had been married off to a surgeon's assistant in Kursk. To Kursk I went, but the surgeon's assistant had left for Persia, for Uzun. I pushed on to Tzaritzyn, from there by ship to Uzun--but Tasha had died. I saw the man--a red-haired, red-nosed cheerful lad. A drunkard, he turned out to be. 'Are you her father, maybe?' he asked.--'No,' I said, 'nothing like that, but I'd seen her father in Siberia.' I did not wish to confide in a stranger. Well, so then I went to New Mt. Athos, almost stayed there--a fine place! But after a while--I decided I did not like it. The sea roars and rolls the stones about, the Abkhazians come and go, the ground is uneven, mountains all around, and the nights as black as though you'd been drowned in pitch. And the heat! So I came here and here I've been for nine years and they haven't been wasted. I've built all this, planted a birch the first year, after three years a maple, then a lime--see them? And I'm a great consoler to the people round here, my friend--you come and watch me on Sunday!"

He hardly ever mentioned God's name--while as a rule it is always on the lips of people of his kind. I asked whether he prayed a lot.

"No, not too much," he said thoughtfully, shutting his naked eyes. "I did so at first, a lot; for hours would I kneel down and keep on crossing myself. My arms were used to a saw, and so they didn't get tired, or my back either. I can bow down a thousand times without a murmur, but the bones in my knees can't stand it: they ache. And then I thought to myself: what am I praying for, and why? I've got all I want, people respect me--why bother God? He's got His own job to do, why trouble Him? Human rubbish should be kept away from Him. He takes care of us and do we take care of Him? No. And also: He is there for people of importance; where will He get time for small fry like me? So now I just come out of the cave on sleepless nights, sit down somewhere or other, and, gazing into God's heaven, wonder to myself: 'And how is He getting along, up there?' This, friend, is a pleasant occupation; I can't tell you how fine; it's like dreaming awake. And one doesn't grow weary as at prayer. I don't ask Him for anything and I never advise others to do so, but when I see they need it, I tell them: 'Have pity on God!' You come along and see how helpful I can be to Him and to people."

He did not boast, but spoke with the calm assurance of a craftsman confident of his skill. His naked eyes smiled gaily, toning down the ugliness of his disfigured face.

"How I live in winter? It's all right, my cave is warm even in winter. It's only that in wintertime people find it hard to come because of the snow; sometimes for two or three days I have to go without bread. Once it so happened that I hadn't had a crumb in my mouth for over eight days. I felt so weak that even my memory went. Then a young girl came and helped me out. She was a novice in a convent, but she has got married to a teacher since. It was I who advised her to do so; I said: 'What are you fooling about like this for, Lenka? What good is it to you?'--'I'm an orphan,' she said.--'Well, go and get married and that will be the end of the orphan.' And to the teacher, Pevtzov, a good, kind man, I said: 'Have a good look at that girl, Misha.' Yes. So very soon they got together. And they're getting along fine. Well, in wintertime, I also go the Sarov or Optina or the Diveyev monastery--there are many of them hereabouts. But the monks don't like me, they all urge me to take the hood--it would be a profit for them, of course, and serve as bait to people, but I have no wish for that. I'm alive, it does not suit me. As though I were a saint! I'm just a quiet man, friend."

Laughing and rubbing his thighs with his hands, he said with exultation:

"But with nuns, I'm always welcome. They just love me, they certainly do! That is no boast, it's the truth. I know women through and through, friend, any sort, whether a lady or a merchant's wife, and as for a peasant woman, she's as clear to me as my own soul. I just look into her eyes and I know everything, all that troubles her. I could tell you such tales about them."

And again he invited persuasively: "Come and see how I talk to them. And now, let's have another little go."

He drank. Closing his eyes tightly and shaking his head, he said with fresh rapture:

"It does one good, that drink!"

The short spring night was visibly melting away; the air grew cool. I suggested that we light a fire.

"No, what for? Are you cold? I, an old man, don't feel the cold, and you do? That's too bad. Go to the cave, then, and lie down there. You see, friend, if we light a fire, all sorts of small living things will come flying here and will get burnt in the flames. And I don't like that. Fire to them is like a trap, leading them to their death. The sun--the father to all fire, kills no one, but why should we, for the sake of our bones, burn up these little folk? No, no."

I agreed with him, and went into the cave, while he remained outside fussing about for some time; he went off somewhere, splashed about in the brook, and I could hear his gentle voice:

"Phuitdon't be afraid, you little fool.Phueeet."

Then he broke into a soft tremulous song, as though lulling someone to sleep.

When I woke up and walked out of the cave, Savel, crouching on the ground, was deftly weaving a bast shoe and saying to a chaffinch singing vehemently in the bushes:

"That's it, go on, buzz on, the day is yours! Slept well, friend? Go and have a wash, I've put the kettle to boil for tea and I'm waiting for you."

"Haven't you had any sleep yourself?"

"I'll have time to sleep when I die, friend."

A blue May sky shone over the ravine.

I came to see him again about three weeks later, on a Saturday evening, and was welcomed as an old, close friend.

"I'd been thinking already: why, the man has forgotten all about me! Ah, and you've brought some of that good drink as well. Thanks, many thanks! And some wheat bread? So fresh, too. What a kind lad indeed! People must surely like you; they love kind folk; they know what's good for them! Sausage? No, I have no liking for that, that's dog's food, you can keep it for yourself if you wish; but fish I love. This fish, it's a sweet fish, comes from the Caspian Sea, I know all about it. Why, you must have brought food for more than a ruble, you queer fellow! Well, never mind, many thanks!"

He seemed to me still more alive, more cordially radiant--all burdens seemed to fall away from me; I felt light-hearted and gay, and I thought to myself:

"Devil take it, I believe I actually am in the presence of a happy man!"

Nimble and gentle, he performed little domestic duties, storing away my gifts, while he scattered like sparks those endearing, bewitching Russian words, which act like wine on the soul.

The movements of his sturdy body, swift as the movements of an adder, harmonized beautifully with the precision of his speech. In spite of the mutilated face, the eyes without lashes--torn apart as though on purpose to enable him to see more widely and more boldly--he seemed almost handsome, with the beauty of a life whose confusion was multi-colored and intricate. And his outward disfigurement gave a particular emphasis to that beauty.

Again, almost the whole night through, his gray little beard fluttered and the meager mustache bristled as he burst into uncontrollable laughter, opening wide the crooked mouth, in which gleamed the sharp white teeth of a polecat. At the bottom of the ravine it was still; the wind was stirring above; the tops of the pinetrees rocked; the harsh foliage of the oaks rustled; the blue river of the skies seemed violently disturbed--covered by a gray foam of clouds.

"Sh"he exclaimed, softly raising his hand in warning. I hearkened--all was quite.

"A fox is prowling about--it has a hole here. Many hunting people have asked me: is there a fox near by, grandfather? And I lie to them! Foxes? What should foxes be doing here? I have no liking for hunters, to the dickens with them!"

I had noticed by then that the old man often wanted to break out into real foul language, but realizing that it was out of character for him to do so, he resorted to milder expressions.

After a glass of cowslip vodka, he said, half-closing his lacerated eyes:

"What tasty fish this is--thank you kindly for it--I do love everything tasty."

His attitude toward God was not very clear to me and cautiously I tried to broach the subject. At first he answered with the hackneyed words of pilgrims, cloister habitues and professional holy-men, but I felt that this manner was in fact irksome to him, and I was not mistaken. Drawing closer to me and lowering his voice, he suddenly began to talk with more animation:

"I'll tell you this, friend, about a little Frenchie, a French priest--a little man, black as a starling, with a spot shaved bare on his head, golden spectacles on his nose, tiny little hands, like a little girl's, and all of him like a toy of God's. I met him at the Pochaev monastery; that is a long way off, over there!"

He waved his hand towards the East, in the direction of India, stretched out his legs more comfortably, and continued, propping his back against some stones:

"Polish people living all around--a foreign soil, not our own. I was palavering with a monk one day, who thought people should get punished more often; so I just smiled and said that if one was to begin punishing rightly, all men would have to go through it, and then there would be time for nothing else, no other work done but just flaying one another. The monk got quite angry with me, called me a fool, and walked away. Then the little priest, who had been sitting in the corner, nestled up to me and started telling me, oh, great things. I tell you, friend, he seemed to me like a kind of John the Baptist. He wasn't quite easy in his speech, for not all our words can be put into a foreign tongue, but his big soul shone through all right. 'I see you do not agree with that monk,' he said, so polite-like, 'and you are right. God is not a fiend; He is a dear friend to people; but this is what has happened, owing to His kindness: He's melted in our tearful life like sugar in water, and the water is filthy and full of dregs, so that we do not feel Him any more; we do not get the taste of Him in our lives. Nevertheless, He is spread over the whole world and lives in every soul as the purest spark; we should seek Him in man, collect Him into a single ball, and when the divine spark of all these living souls is gathered into this powerful whole--the Devil will come and say to the Lord: 'Thou art great, my God, and Thy might is measureless--I didn't know this before, so pray forgive me! I won't struggle with Thee any more now--please take me into Thy service.' "

The old man spoke with emphasis, and his dilated pupils gleamed strangely in his dark face.

"And then the end will come to all evil and wickedness and human strife, and people will return to their God, like rivers flowing into the ocean."

He choked over his words, slapped his knees, and continued joyfully, with a hoarse little laugh:

"All this came as such balm to my heart; it struck a light in my soul--I didn't know how to say it to the Frenchie. 'Might I be allowed to embrace you, you image of Christ?' I said. So we embraced one another and started crying, both of us. And how we cried! Like small children, finding their parents after a long parting. We were both quite old, you know; the bristle round his shaven spot was gray, too. So I told him then and there: 'You're like John the Baptist to me, Christ's image.' Christ's image is what I called him; funny, isn't it, when I told you he resembled a starling! The monk, Vitaly, kept abusing him and saying: 'A nail, that's what you are.' And true it was indeed, he was like a nail, as sharp as one. Of course, friend, you do not understand this sweet joy of mine; you can read and write; you know all about everything; but I, at that time, went about as one blind--I was able to see all right, but just couldn't make out: where is God? And all of a sudden this man comes and reveals it all to me--just think, what that meant to me! I told you only a little of what he said to me--we talked until dawn; he went on and on; but I can recall only the kernel of it, I've lost all the shell."

He stopped speaking and sniffed the air like an animal:

"Guess it's going to rain, eh?"

He sniffed again, and then decided contentedly:

"No, it won't rain, it's just the night's dampness. I'll tell you, friend, all these Frenchmen and inhabitants of other lands, they are people of high intelligence. In the province of Kharkov--or was it Poltava--an Englishman, who managed the estate of a great lord, kept watching me; then he called me into the room one day and said: 'Here's a secret parcel, old man; will you take it to such and such a place, and hand it over to such and such a person--can you do it?' Well--why not? It did not matter to me where I went, and it was about sixty miles to the place indicated. I took the parcel, tied it up with a string, thrust it in my bosom and--off I went. On getting to the place, I begged to be allowed to see the landowner. Of course, they gave it to me in the neck--they beat me up and chased me away. 'Curse you,' I thought to myself, 'may you blow up and burst!' Well, the wrapper of the parcel must have got damp from my sweat, and came apart--and what do you think I saw peeping through it--money! Big money! Maybe three hundred rubles. I got scared; someone might notice it and steal it at night. What was I to do? There I was, sitting in the field, on the road, under a tree--when a carriage comes up with a gentleman sitting in it. Maybe that's the man I want--I thought. So I stood on the road waving my staff. The coachman lashed out at me with the whip, but the gentleman told him to stop and even scolded him a bit. Yes, he was the right man. 'Here is a secret parcel for you,' I said. 'Right,' he replied. 'Sit down next to me and we'll drive back.' He brought me into a luxurious room and asked whether I knew the contents of the parcel. So I told him I thought it was money, as I'd seen it peep through the sweaty paper. 'And who gave it to you?' he asked. I couldn't tell, that would have been against orders. He started shouting and threatening to send me to prison. 'Well,' I said, 'do so, if you think you must.' He went on threatening, but it did not work. I would not be frightened. Suddenly the door opened--and there on the threshold stood the Englishman roaring with laughter! Now, what did that mean? He'd arrived by rail earlier in the day and had sat waiting: would I come or would I not? They both knew all along when I arrived and saw the servants chase me away; they'd given them the orders to do so, not to beat me, but just to throw me out. It was a joke, don't you see, to test whether I would deliver the money or not. Well--they seemed pleased that I'd brought it, told me to go and wash, gave me clean clothes and asked me to come and eat with them.Yes, friendI must say, we did have a meal! The wine too--you just take a sip of it and you can't close your mouth afterwards. It burns all your insides--and has such a flavor, too. They gave me so much of it that I parted with it. The next day again I ate with them, and I told them things that surprised them very much. The Englishman got tight, and tried to prove that the Russian people were the most remarkable in the world and that nobody knew what they'd be up to next. He banged his fist on the table, so excited he got. That money they just handed over to me and I took it, although I've never been greedy for money--it has no interest for me, that's all. But I'm fond of buying things, it's true. One day, for instance, I bought a doll. I was walking along a street and saw a doll in the window: just like a live child, even rolling its eyes, it was. So I bought it. Dragged it about with me for four days--would sit down on the road somewhere, take it out of my sack and look at it. Later on I gave it to a little girl in the village. Her father asked: 'Did you steal it?' 'Yes,' I said--I was ashamed to own I'd bought it."

"Well, and what about the Englishman?"

"They just let me go, that's all. Shook me by the hand and said they were sorry about the joke, and so on.

"I must go and sleep now, friend, I've got a hard day before me tomorrow."

Settling down to sleep, he said:

"An odd bird I was.Suddenly joy would seize me, it would flood my innards, my whole heart--I would be ready to dance. And I would dance--much to everybody's amusement. Well--why not? I've got no children--nobody to be ashamed of me.

"That means the soul is at play, friend"--he went on thoughtfully and softly. "A capricious thing, the soul, one never knows what might attract it all of a sudden, something quite funny at times, and just make you cling to it. For instance--just like that doll--one day a little girl bewitched me. I once came across a little girl in a country house. There she was, a child about nine years of age, sitting beside a pond, stirring the water with a twig and shedding tears--her little muzzle bathed in them, like a flower in dew, tears dropping down her breast like pearls. I sat by her side, of course, and asked why she was crying like that on a merry day? An angry little thing she turned out to be, tried to send me away. But I was stubborn, made her speak; so she said to me: 'Don't you come wandering around here; my daddy has a dreadful temper; and so has mammy and also my little brother!' I laughed to myself, but pretended I was really frightened, taking her at her word. Then she buried her little muzzle in my shoulder and just sobbed and sobbed, fairly shook with sobs. Her sorrow proved to be not a very heavy one: her parents had gone to a party near by and had punished her by not taking her, as she'd been naughty and refused to wear the right frock. I played up to her, of course, and soothed her, and said what bad people these parents were. So she begged me to take her away from them; she didn't want to live with them any longer. Take her away with me? Why, of course I would, no trouble about that! So off we went. And I took her to where her parents were having a party--she had a little friend there, Kolya, a curly-headed little sprig--that was the real reason for her sorrow. Well, they all laughed at her, of course, and she stood there blushing worse than a poppy. Her father gave me half a ruble, and I went off. And what do you think, friend? My soul had clung to that little girl, I couldn't tear myself away from the place. I hovered around for a week, waiting to see her, to talk to her; funny, isn't it? I just couldn't help it. She had been taken away to the seaside; she had a weak chest; and there I was roaming about like a lost dog. That's how things happen at times. Yesthe soul is a capricious bird--who knows where it may go when it takes its flight?"

The old man paused and yawned as he spoke, as though he were half asleep, or in a trance; then suddenly he brightened up again as though splashed by a cold rain.

"Last autumn a lady from town came to me. She was not very comely, rather weedy and dried-up, I'd say, but when I glanced into her eyes--God Almighty, if only I could have her, if only for one night, I said to myself. After that--cut me to pieces, let horses tear me asunder--I don't care, I'll take any death. So I told her straight away: 'Go. Please go, or I may hurt you, go! I can't talk to you, d'you hear? I beg of you, go!' I don't know if she guessed, or what, but she hurried away, anyhow. How many nights did I not lay awake thinking of her, seeing those eyes in front of me--a real torture. And me an old man, too.Old, yesThe soul knows no laws, it takes no account of years."

He stretched himself out on the ground, twitched the red, scar-like eye-lids, then said, smacking his lips:

"Well, I'm off to sleep now." And wrapping his head in his cloak he remained still.

He awakened at dawn, looked into the cloudy sky, and hastily ran to the brook where he stripped himself naked, grunting, washed his strong brown body from head to toe, and shouted out to me:

"Hi, friend, hand me over my shirt and trousers; they're in the cave."

Pulling on a long shirt that reached to his knees, and blue trousers, he combed out his wet hair with a wooden comb and, almost handsome, faintly reminding one of an icon, he said:

"I always wash with particular care before receiving people."

While we had our tea he refused vodka:

"No, none of that today. I won't eat anything either, just have a little tea. Nothing should go to one's head; one should keep it light. One needs great lightness of soul in this business."

People started coming after midday; until then the old man remained silent and dull. His merry, lively eyes had a concentrated look: a grave poise marked all his movements. He looked frequently at the sky and hearkened to the light rustle of the wind. His face was drawn; it seemed more disfigured, and the twitching of the mouth more poignant.

"Someone is coming," he said softly.

I heard nothing.

"Yes. Women. Look here, friend, don't speak to anyone and keep out of the way--or you'll scare them. Sit quietly somewhere nearby."

Two women crawled noiselessly out of the bushes: one, plump, middle-aged, with the meek eyes of a horse; the other, a young woman with a gray, consumptive face; they both stared at me in fear.

I walked away along the slope of the ravine, and heard the old man saying:

"He does not matter; he's not in our way. He's a bit touched in the head; he does not care, does not bother about us."

The younger woman started to speak in a cracked voice, in hurried and hurt tones, coughing and wheezing, her companion interrupting her speech with short, low, deep notes, while Savel, in a voice that sounded like a stranger's, exclaimed, full of sympathy:

"So--so--so! What people, eh?"

The woman began to whimper plaintively--then the old man drawled melodiously:

"Dear--wait a bit; stop that; listen"

It seemed to me that his voice had lost its hoarseness, sounded more clear and high; and the melody of his words reminded me curiously of the artless song of a goldfinch. I could see, through the net of branches, that he was bending towards the woman, speaking straight into her face; while she, sitting awkwardly at his side, opened her eyes wide and pressed her hands to her breast. Her friend, holding her head on one side, rocked it to and fro.

"They've hurt you; that means they've hurt God!" the old man said loudly and the brisk, almost cheerful sound of his words was strikingly out of keeping with their meaning. "God--where is He? In your soul, behind your breasts, lives the Holy Ghost; and these witless brothers of yours have injured Him by their foolishness. You should take pity on the fools--they've done the wrong. To hurt God is like hurting a small child of yours."

And once more he drawled:

"Dee-ear"

I started: never before had I heard this familiar, trivial little word spoken with such triumphant tenderness. Now the old man was talking in a quick whisper; his hand on the woman's shoulder, he pushed her gently, and the woman rocked as though half-asleep. The older woman sat down on the stones at the old man's feet, methodically spreading the hem of her blue skirt around her.

"A pig, a dog, a horse--every beast trusts in human reason; and your brothers are human beings, remember this! And tell the elder one to come to me on Sunday."

"He won't," said the big woman.

"He will!" the old man exclaimed confidently.

Somebody else was descending into the ravine; clots of earth were rolling down; the branches of the bushes rustled.

"He will come," repeated Savel. "Now, go with God's blessing. All will be well."

The consumptive woman rose silently and bowed low to the old man. He raised her head with the palm of his hand and said:

"Remember, you carry God in your soul."

She bowed again and handed him a small bundle.

"May Christ keep you"

"Thanks, friend.And now, go." And he made the sign of the cross over her.

Out of the bushes came a broad-shouldered, black-bearded peasant, in a new pink shirt, that had not yet been washed; it bulged out in stiff folds, protruding from the belt. He was hatless; his disheveled shock of grayish hair stuck out on all sides in unruly locks; his small, bear-like eyes peered sullenly from under frowning brows.

Making way for the women, he followed them with a glance, coughed loudly, and scratched his chest.

"How do, Olesha," said the old man with a smile. "What is it?"

"Here I am," said Olesha dully; "want to sit awhile with you."

"Good, let's do so."

They sat for a moment in silence, earnestly gazing at each other, then started talking simultaneously.

"Working?"

"Father, I'm fed up"

"You're a big peasant, Olesha."

"If only I had your kind heart."

"You're a strong man."

"What good is my strength to me? It's your soul I want."

"Well, when your house burned down, another, like an ass, would have lost courage."

"And I?"

"You--no! You've started all over again."

"My heart is bitter," the man said loudly, and cursed his heart in foul language, while Savel went on with quiet assurance:

"Your heart's just a common, human, anxious heart; it does not want trouble; it longs for peace."

"It's true, father."

They went on like that for about half an hour--the peasant telling of a fierce wicked man, whose life was burdened by many failures; while Savel spoke of another man, a strong one, who worked stubbornly, a man who would let nothing slip away from him, nothing escape him, a man with a fine soul.

With a broad smile on his face, the peasant said:

"I've made it up with Peter."

"So I've heard."

"Yes. Made it up. We had a drink together. I said to him: 'What are you up to, you devil?' And he said: 'Well, what about you?' Yes. A fine man, damn his soul."

"You're both the children of one God."

"A fine man. And clever, too. Father--what about my getting married?"

"Of course. She's the one for you to marry."

"Anfisa?"

"Why, yes. She's a good housewife. What a beauty she is, too, and what strength she has. She's a widow; her first husband was an old man, and she had a bad time with him; but you two will get on well together, take my word for it."

"I will get marriedreally."

"So you should."

Then the peasant proceeded to relate something unintelligible about a dog, about letting cider out of a barrel; he went on with his stories, guffawing like a wood-sprite. His sullen, brigand's scowl had become completely transformed, and he now had the silly, good-natured look of a domesticated animal.

"Well, Olesha, move on, here's someone else coming."

"More sufferers? All right"

Olesha descended to the brook, drank some water out of the palm of his hand, then sat down for a few moments motionless as a stone, threw himself back on the ground, folded his arms under his head and apparently went to sleep at once. Then there came a crippled girl, in a motley frock, a thick brown plait down her back, and with big blue eyes. Her face was striking and like a picture; but her skirt was annoyingly vivid, covered with green and yellow spots, and there were scarlet spots, the color of blood, on her white blouse.

The old man welcomed her with joy, and tenderly bade her sit down. Then a tall, black old woman, looking like a nun, appeared, and with her a large-headed, tow-haired lad with a congealed smile on his fat face.

Savel hastily led the girl away into the cave, and concealing her there, closed the door--I could hear the wooden hinges screech.

He sat on a stone between the old woman and the boy, his head bent down, and listened to her murmur in silence for a long time.

"Enough!" he suddenly pronounced, sternly and loudly "So he does not listen to you, you say?"

"No, he doesn't. I tell him this and that"

"Wait. So you don't do as she tells you, lad?"

The lad remained silent, smiling vacantly.

"Well, that's right, don't listen to her.--Understand? And you, woman, you've started a bad job. I tell you frankly; it's against the law. And there couldn't be anything worse than that. Go, there's nothing for us to talk about.--She's out to do you in, lad."

The lad, with a sneer, said in a high falsetto:

"Oh, I know that, I do o."

"Well, go," Savel said, with a disgusted gesture of dismissal. "Go! You will have no success, woman. None!"

Downcast, they bowed to him in silence and went upwards through the thicket, along a hidden path; I could see that having walked up about a hundred feet, they both started talking, standing close together, facing one another; then they sat down at the foot of a pine, waving their arms about, and a quarrelsome drone reached one's ears. Meanwhile from the cave came pouring out an indescribably moving exclamation:

"Dee-ear"

God alone knows how that disfigured old man contrived to put into this word so much enchanting tenderness, so much exultant love.

"It's too early for you to think of it," he said, as though he were uttering an incantation, leading the lame girl out of the cave. He held her by the hand as though she were a child who still walked uncertainly. She staggered as she walked, pushing him with her shoulder, wiping the tears from her eyes, with the movements of a cat--her hands were small and white.

The old man made her sit on the stone by his side, talking uninterruptedly, clearly and melodiously--as though telling a fairy-tale:

"Don't you see you are a flower on earth? God nurtured you to give joy; you can give great happiness; the clear light of your eyes alone is a feast to the soul--dea-ear!"

The capacity of this word was inexhaustible, and truly it seemed to me that it contained in its depth the key to all the mysteries of life, the solution of all the painful muddle of human relationships. Through its fascination it was able to bewitch not only peasant women, but all men, all living things. Savel uttered it in infinitely various ways--with emotion, with solemnity, with a kind of touching sadness. It sounded at times reproachful, at times tender, or else it poured out in a radiant music of joy; and I always felt, whatever the way in which it was said, that its source was a limitless, an inexhaustible love, a love which knows nothing but itself and marvels at itself, seeing in itself alone the meaning and aim of existence, all the beauty of life, capable of enveloping the world in its power.

At that time I had already taught myself to doubt; but in these hours, on this cloudy day, all my unbelief fled like shadows before the sun at the sound of the familiar word, worn threadbare by long usage.

The lame girl gasped happily as she went away, nodding her head to the old man:

"Thank you, grandfather, thank you, dear."

"That's all right. Go, friend, go. And remember--you're going towards joy, towards happiness, towards a great task--towards joy! Go!"

She retreated sideways, never tearing her eyes away from Savel's radiant face. Black-haired Olesha, waking up, stood by the brook, shaking his still more disheveled head, and watched the girl with a smile. Suddenly he pushed two fingers into his mouth and gave a shrill whistle. The girl staggered and dived like a fish into the dense waves of the thicket.

"You're crazy, Olesha!" the old man reproved him.

Olesha, playing the buffoon, crouched on the ground, pulled a bottle out of the brook, and brandishing it in the air, suggested:

"Shall we have a drink, father?"

"Have one if you like. I can't, not until tonight."

"Well, I'll wait till evening, too.Ah, father--" and strong curses followed like an avalanche of bricks--"a sorcerer, that's what you are--but a saint, too, 'pon my word! You play with the soul--the human soul, just as a child would. I lay here and thought to myself"

"Don't bawl, Olesha."

The old woman with the lad came back, and talked to Savel in a low and contrite tone. He shook his head distrustfully, and led them away into the cave, while Olesha, catching sight of me in the thicket, clumsily made his way across to me, breaking the branches as he came.

"A town bird, are you?"

He was in a cheerful and talkative mood, gently quarrel-some, and kept singing Savel's praises:

"A great consoler, Savel. Take me, for instance, I simply live on his soul; my own is overgrown with malice, as with hair. I'm a desperate man, brother."

He painted himself for a long time in the most sinister colors, but I did not believe him.

The old woman emerged from the cave, and, with a deep bow to Savel, said:

"Don't you be angry with me, father."

"Very well, friend"

"You yourself know"

"Yes, I know that everybody is afraid of poverty. A pauper is never liked by anyone, I know. But all the same: one should avoid offending God in oneself as well as in others. If we were to keep God in mind always, there would be no poverty in the world. So it is, friend. Now go, with God's blessing."

The lad kept sniveling, glancing fearfully at the old man, and hiding behind his stepmother. Then a beautiful woman arrived, a woman from the town, to judge by her appearance; she wore a lavender-colored frock and a blue kerchief, from under which gleamed two large gray-blue eyes angrily and suspiciously.

And again the enchanting word resounded:

"Dee-ear"

Olesha kept on talking, preventing me from hearing what the old man was saying:

"He can melt every soul like tin.A great help he is to me. If it were not for him, Hell alone knows what I'd have done by now.Siberia"

Savel's words rose from below:

"Every man should be a source of happiness to you, my beauty, and here you are saying all these malicious things. Chase anger away, dear. It is goodness we glorify, isn't it, when we glorify our saints on feast days, not malice. What is it you mistrust? It's yourself you mistrust, your womanly power, your beauty--and what is it that is hidden in beauty? God's spirit, that's what it isDee-ear."

Deeply moved, I was on the verge of weeping for joy, so great is the magic force of a word vivified by love.

Before the ravine had filled with the dense darkness of a cloudy night, about thirty people came to see Savel--dignified, old villagers carrying staffs, distressed people overcome with grief; more than half of the visitors were women. I did not listen any more to their uniform complaints, I only waited impatiently for the word to come from Savel. When night came, he allowed Olesha and me to build a bonfire on the stone platform. We got tea and food ready while he sat by the flames, chasing away with his cloak all the "living things" attracted by the fire.

"Another day gone in the service of the soul," he murmured, thoughtfully and wearily.

Olesha gave him some practical advice: "A pity you don't take money from people."

"It's not suitable for me."

"Well, you can take from one and give to another. Me, for instance. I'd buy a horse."

"You tell the children to come tomorrow, Olesha; I've got some gifts for them. The women brought a lot of stuff today."

Olesha went over to the brook to wash his hands, and I said to Savel:

"You speak to people so well, grandfather."

"Ye-es," he agreed calmly. "I told you I did! And people have respect for me. I tell them each the truth they need. That's what it is."

He smiled merrily and went on, with less weariness:

"It's the women I talk best to, isn't it? It just so happens, friend, that when I see a woman, or a girl, who is at all beautiful--my soul soars up and seems to blossom out. I feel a kind of gratitude to them: at the sight of one, I recall all those I have ever known and they are numberless."

Olesha came back, saying:

"Father Savel, will you stand surety for me in the matter of the sixty rubles I'm borrowing from Shakh?"

"Very well."

"Tomorrow, eh?"

"Yes"

"See?" Olesha turned to me triumphantly, stepping on my toe as he did so. "Shakh, my boy, is the kind of man who has only to look at you from a distance and your shirt crawls down of itself from your back, right into his hands. But if Father Savel comes to see him--Shakh squirms before him like a little pup. Look at all the timber he gave to the victims of the fire, for instance." Olesha fussed about noisily and did not allow the old man to relax. One could see that Savel was very tired. He sat wearily by the fire, all crumpled up, his arm waving over the flames, the skirt of his coat reminding one of a broken wing. But nothing could subdue Olesha; he had had two glasses of vodka and had become still more exuberantly cheerful. The old man also had some vodka, ate a baked egg with bread after it; and suddenly he said, quite softly:

"Now go home, Olesha!"

The great black beast rose, made the sign of the cross, and glanced into the black sky.

"Keep well, father, and many thanks!" he said. Then he pushed his hard, heavy paw into my hand and obediently crawled into the thicket, where a narrow path was concealed.

"A good man?" I asked.

"Yes, but he has to be watched carefully; his is a violent nature! He beat his wife so hard that she could not bear any children, kept having miscarriages, and went mad in the end. I would ask him: why do you beat her?--and he would say: I don't know, just want to, that's all."

He remained silent, let his arm drop, and sat motionless, peering into the flames of the bonfire, his gray eyebrows raised. His face, lit up by the fire, seemed red-hot and became terrible to look at: the dark pupils of the naked, lacerated eyes had changed their shape--it was hard to tell whether they were narrower or more dilated--the whites had grown larger and he seemed to have suddenly become blind.

He moved his lips; the scanty hair of his mustache stirred and bristled--as though he wanted to say something and could not. But when he started to speak again, he did so calmly, thoughtfully, in a peculiar manner:

"It happens to many a man, this, friend; that you suddenly want to beat up a woman, without any fault of her own and--at what a moment, too! You've just been kissing her, marveling at her beauty; and suddenly, at that very moment, the desire overcomes you to beat her! Yes, yes, friend, it happensI can tell you; I am a quiet, gentle man and did love women so much, sometimes to the point of wanting to get deep inside the woman, right to her very heart and hide in it, as a dove does in the sky--that's how wonderful it was. And then, suddenly, would come the desire to hit her, pinch her as hard as one could; and I would do so, yes! She would shriek and cry: what's the matter? And there is no answer--what answer could there be?"

I looked at him in amazement, unable, too, to say anything or ask any question--this strange confession astonished me. After a pause, he went on about Olesha.

"After his wife went mad, Olesha became still more illtempered--a fierce mood would come over him, he'd believe himself damned, and beat everyone up. A short while ago the peasants brought him to me tied up; they'd almost thrashed him to death. He was all swollen, covered with blood like bread with crust. 'Tame him, father Savel,' they said, 'or we'll kill him, there's no living with the beast!' Yes, friend. I spent about five days bringing him back to life. I can doctor a bit, too, you know.Yes, it isn't easy for people to live, friend, it isn't. Not always is life sweet, my dear clear-eyed friend.So I try to console people, I do."

He gave a piteous smile, and his face grew more hideous and terrible.

"Some of them I have to deceive a little; there are, you see, some people who have no comfort left to them at all but deceit. There are some like that, I tell you."

There were many questions I wanted to put to him, but he had eaten nothing the whole day; fatigue and the glass of vodka were obviously telling on him. He dozed, rocking to and fro, and his red eyelids dropped more frequently over the naked eyes. I could not help asking all the same:

"Grandfather, is there such a thing as hell, do you think?"

He raised his head and said sternly and reproachfully:

"Hell? How can that be? How can you? God--and hell? Is that possible? The two don't go together, friend. It's a fraud. You people who can read invented this to frighten folk, it's all priests' nonsense. Why one should want to frighten people, I cannot see. Besides, no one is really afraid of that hell of yours."

"And what about the devil? Where does he live, in that case?"

"Don't you joke about that."

"I'm not joking."

"Well--well"

He waved the skirts of his coat once more over the fire, and said softly:

"Don't sneer at him. To everyone his own burden. The little Frenchie might have been right about the devil bowing down to the Lord in due time. A priest told me the story of the prodigal son from the Scriptures one day--I can remember it well. It seems to me that it is the story of the devil himself. It's he, no other but he, that is the prodigal son."

He swayed over the fire.

"Hadn't you better go to sleep?" I suggested.

The old man agreed:

"Yes, it's time"

He readily turned on his side, curled himself up, pulled the coat over his head--and was silent. The branches cracked and hissed on the coals, the smoke rose in fanciful streamers into the darkness of the night.

I watched the old man and thought to myself:

"Is he a saint, owning the treasure of limitless love for the world?"

I remembered the lame girl with the sorrowful eyes, in the motley frock, and life itself appeared to me in the image of that girl: she was standing in front of a hideous little god and he, who knew only how to love, put all the enchanting power of that love into one word of consolation:

"Dee-ear."

1923.

 
 
 

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