Part 3 out of 7
lighted storeroom across the passage emits a perennial odour of
dried mushroom, tobacco leaves, and hemp oil.
Vologonov stirs his strong, stewed tea with a battered old
teaspoon, and says with a sigh as he sips a little:
"All my life I have been engaged in gaining experience so that
now I know most things, and ought to be listened to with
attention. Usually folk do so listen to me, but though here and
there one may find a living soul, of the rest it may be said: 'In
the House of David shall terrible things come to pass, and
fire shall consume the spirit of lechery.'"
The words resemble bricks in that they seem, if possible, to
increase the height of the walls of strange and extraneous
events, and even stranger dramas, which loom for ever around, me.
"For example," continues the old man, "why is Mitri Ermolaev
Polukonov, our ex-mayor, lying dead before his time? Because he
conceived a number of arrogant projects. For example, he sent
his eldest son to study at Kazan-- with the result that during
the son's second year at the University he, the son, brought
home with him a curly-headed Jewess, and said to his father:
'Without this woman I cannot live--in her are bound up my whole
soul and strength.' Yes, a pass indeed! And from that day forth
nothing but misfortune befell in that Yashka took to drink, the
Jewess gave way to repining, and Mitri had to go perambulating
the town with piteous invitations to 'come and see, my brethren,
to what depths I have sunk!' And though, eventually, the Jewess
died of a bloody flux, of a miscarriage, the past was beyond
mending, and, while the son went to the bad, and took to drink
for good and all, the father 'fell a victim by night to untimely
death.' Yes, the lives of two folk were thus undone by 'the
thorn-bearing company of Judaea.' Like ourselves, the Hebrew has
a destiny of his own. And destiny cannot be driven out with a
stick. Of each of us the destiny is unhasting. It moves slowly
and quietly, and can never be avoided. 'Wait,' it says. ' Seek
not to press onward.'"
As he discourses, Vologonov's eyes ceaselessly change colour--now
turning to a dull grey, and wearing a tired expression, and now
becoming blue, and assuming a mournful air, and now (and most
frequently of all) beginning to emit green flashes of an
"Similarly, the Kapustins, once a powerful family, came at
length to dust-became as nothing. It was a family the members of
which were ever in favour of change, and devoted to anything
that was new. In fact, they went and set up a piano! Well, of
them only Valentine is still on his legs, and he (he is a doctor
of less than forty years of age) is a hopeless drunkard, and
saturated with dropsy, and fallen a prey to asthma, so that his
cancerous eyes protrude horribly. Yes, the Kapustins, like the
Polukonovs, may be 'written down as dead.'"
Throughout, Vologonov speaks in a tone of unassailable
conviction, in a tone implying that never could things happen,
never could things have happened, otherwise than as he has
stated. In fact, in his hands even the most inexplicable, the
most grievous, phenomena of life become such as a law has
"And the same thing will befall the Osmukhins," he next
remarks. "Let them be a warning to you never to make friends
with Germans, and never to engage in business with them. In
Russia any housewife may brew beer; yet our people will not
drink it--they are more used to spirits. Also, Russian folk like
to attain their object in drinking AT ONCE; and a shkalik of
vodka will do more to sap wit than five kruzhki of beer. Once
our people liked uniform simplicity; but now they are
become like a man who was born blind, and has suddenly acquired
sight. A change indeed! For thirty-three years did Ilya of Murom
[Ilya Murometz, the legendary figure most frequently met with In
Russian bilini (folk songs), and probably identical with Elijah
the Prophet, though credited with many of the attributes proper,
rather, to the pagan god Perun the Thunderer.] sit waiting for
his end before it came; and all who cannot bide patiently in a
state of humility..."
Meanwhile clouds shaped like snow-white swans are traversing the
roseate heavens and disappearing into space, while below them,
on earth, the ravine can be seen spread out like the pelt of a
bear which the broad shoulders of some fabulous giant have
sloughed before taking refuge in the marshes and forest. In fact
the landscape reminds me of sundry ancient tales of marvels, as
also does Antipa Vologonov, the man who is so strangely
conversant with the shortcomings of human life, and so
passionately addicted to discussing them.
For a moment or two he remains silent as sibilantly he purses
his lips and drinks some saffron-coloured tea from the saucer
which the splayed fingers of his right hand are balancing on
their tips. Whereafter, when his wet moustache has been dried,
his level voice resumes its speech in tones as measured as those
of one reading aloud from the Psalter.
"Have you noticed a shop in Zhitnaia Street kept by an old man
named Asiev? Once that man had ten sons. Six of them, however,
died in infancy. Of the remainder the eldest, a fine singer, was
at once extravagant and a bookworm; wherefore, whilst an
officer's servant at Tashkend, he cut the throats of his master
and mistress, and for doing so was executed by shooting. As a
matter of fact, the tale has it that he had been making love to
his mistress, and then been thrown over in favour of his master
once more. And another son, Grigori, after being given a high
school education at St. Petersburg, became a lunatic. And
another, Alexei, entered the army as a cavalryman, but is now
acting as a circus rider, and probably has also become a
drunkard. And the youngest son of all, Nikolai, ran away as a
boy, and, eventually arriving in Norway with a precious scheme
for catching fish in the Arctic Ocean, met with failure through
the fact that he had overlooked the circumstance that we
Russians have fish of our own and to spare, and had to have his
interest assigned by his father to a local monastery. So much
for fish of the Arctic Seas! Yet if Nikolai had only waited, if
he had only been more patient, he--"
Here Vologonov lowers his voice, and continues with something of
the growl of an angry dog:
"I too have had sons, one of whom was killed at Kushka (a
document has certified to that effect), another was drowned
whilst drunk, three more died in infancy, and only two are still
alive. Of these last, I know that one is acting as a waiter in a
hotel at Smolensk, while the other, Melenti, was educated for
the Church, sent to study in a seminary, induced to abscond and
get into trouble, and eventually dispatched to Siberia. There
now! Yes, the Russian is what might be called a 'lightweighted'
individual, an individual who, unless he holds himself down by
the head, is soon carried off by the wind like a chicken's
feather-- for we are too self-confident and restless. Before now,
I myself have been a gull, a man lacking balance: for never does
youth realise its own insignificance, or know how to wait."
Dissertations of the kind drop from the old man like water from
a leaky pipe on a cold, blustery day in autumn. Wagging his grey
beard, he talks and talks, until I begin to think that he must
be an evil wizard, and master of this remote, barren, swampy,
ravine-pitted region--that he it is who originally planted the
town in this uncomfortable, clayey hollow, and has thrown the
houses into heaps, and entangled the streets, and wantonly
created the town's unaccountably rude and rough and deadly
existence, and addled men's brains with disconnected nonsense,
and consumed their hearts with a fear of life. Yes, it comes to
me that it must be he who, during the long six months of winter,
causes cruel snowstorms from the plain to invade the town, and
with frost compresses the buildings of the town until their
rafters crack, and stinging cold brings birds to the ground.
Lastly, I become seized with the idea that it must be he who,
almost every summer, envelops the town in those terrible
visitations of heat by night which seem almost to cause the
houses to melt.
However, as a rule he maintains complete silence, and merely
makes chewing motions with his strong-toothed jaws as he sits
wagging his beard from side to side. At such times there is in
his eyes a bluish fire like the gleam of charcoal, while his
crooked fingers writhe like worms, and his outward appearance
becomes sheerly that of a magician of iniquity.
Once I asked him:
"What in particular ought men to wait for? "
For a while he sat clasping his beard, and, with contracted
eyes, gazing as at something behind me. Then he said quietly and
"Someday there will arise a Strange Man who will proclaim to
the world the Word to which there never was a beginning. But to
which of us is the hour when that Man will arise known? To none
of us.. And to which of us are known the miracles which that
Word will perform? To none of us."
Once upon a time there used to glide past the window of my room
the fair, curly, wavering, golden head of Nilushka the idiot, a
lad looking like a thing which the earth has begotten of love.
Yes, Nilushka was like an angel in some sacred picture adorning
the southern or the northern gates of an ancient church, as,
with his flushed face smeared with wax-smoke and oil, and his
light blue eyes gleaming in a cold, unearthly smile, and a frame
clad in a red smock reaching to below his knees, and the soles
of his feet showing black (always he walked on tiptoe), and his
thin calves, as straight and white as the calves of a woman,
covered with golden down, he walked the streets.
Sometimes hopping along on one leg, and smiling, and waving his
arms, and causing the ample folds and sleeves of his smock to
flutter until he seemed to be moving in the midst of a nimbus,
Nilushka would sing in a halting whisper the childish ditty:
0h Lo-ord, pardon me!
And do-ogs run,
And the hunters wait
To kill the wolves.
0h Lo-ord, pardon me!
Meanwhile, he would diffuse a cheering atmosphere of happiness
with which no one in the locality had anything in common. For he
was ever a lighthearted, winning, essentially pure innocent of
the type which never fails to evoke good-natured smiles and
kindly emotions. Indeed, as he roamed the streets, the suburb
seemed to live its life with less clamour, to appear more decent
of outward guise, since the local folk looked upon the imbecile
with far more indulgence than they did upon their own children;
and he was intimate with, and beloved by, even the worst.
Probably the reason for this was that the semblance of flight
amid an atmosphere of golden dust which was his combined with
his straight, slender little figure to put all who beheld him in
mind of churches, angels, God, and Paradise. At all events, all
viewed him in a manner contemplative, interested, and more than
a little deferential.
A curious fact was the circumstance that whenever Nilushka
sighted a stray gleam from a piece of glass, or the glitter of a
morsel of copper in sunlight, he would halt dead where he was ,
turn grey with the ashiness of death, lose his smile, and remain
dilating to an unnatural extent his clouded and troubled eyes.
And so, with his whole form distorted with horror, and his thin
hand crossing himself, and his knees trembling, and his smock
fluttering around his frail wisp of a body, and his features
growing stonelike, he would, for an hour or more, continue to
stand, until at length someone laid a hand in his, and led him
The tale had it that, in the first instance, born "soft-headed,"
he finally lost his reason, five years before the
period of which I am writing, when a great fire occurred, and
that thenceforth anything, save sunlight, that in any way
resembled fire plunged him into this torpor of dumb dread.
Naturally the people of the suburb devoted to him a great deal
"There goes God's fool," would be their remark. "It will not
be long before he dies and becomes a Saint, and we fall down and
Yet there were persons who would go so far as to crack rude
jests at his expense. For instance, as he would be skipping
along, with his childish voice raised in his little ditty, some
idler or another would shout from a window, or through the
cranny of a fence:
"Hi, Nilushka! Fire! Fire!"
Whereupon the angel-faced imbecile would sink to earth as though
his legs had been cut away at the knee from under him, and he
would huddle, frantically clutching his golden head in his
permanently soiled hands, and exposing his youthful form to the
dust, under the nearest house or fence.
Only then would the person who had given him the fright repent,
and say with a laugh:
"God in heaven, what a stupid lad this is!"
And, should that person have been asked why he had thus
terrified the boy, he would probably have replied:
"Because it is such sport to do so. As a lad who cannot feel
things as other human beings do, he inclines folk to make fun of
As for the omniscient Antipa Vologonov, the following was his
frequent comment on Nilushka:
"Christ also had to walk in terror. Christ also was persecuted.
Why so? Because ever He endured in rectitude and strength. Men
need to learn what is real and what is unreal. Many are the
sins of earth come of the fact that the seeming is mistaken for
the actual, and that men keep pressing forward when they ought
to be waiting, to be proving themselves."
Hence Vologonov, like the rest, bestowed much attention upon
Nilushka, and frequently held conversations with him.
"Do you now pray to God," he said once as he pointed to heaven
with one of his crooked fingers, and with the disengaged hand
clasped his dishevelled, variously coloured beard.
Whereupon Nilushka glanced fearfully at the mysteriously
pointing finger, and, plucking sharply at his forehead,
shoulders, and stomach with two fingers and a thumb, intoned in
thin, plaintive accents:
"Our Father in Heaven--"
"WHICH ART in Heaven."
"Yes, in the Heaven of Heavens."
"Ah, well! God will understand. He is the friend of all blessed
ones." [Idiots; since persons mentally deficient are popularly
deemed to stand in a peculiarly close relation to the Almighty.]
Again, great was Nilushka's interest in anything spherical.
Also, he had a love for handling the heads of children; when,
softly approaching a group from behind, he would, with his
bright, quiet smile, lay slender, bony fingers upon a
close-cropped little poll; with the result that the children,
not relishing such fingering, would take alarm at the same, and,
bolting to a discreet distance, thence abuse the idiot, put out
their tongues at him, and drawl in a nasal chorus:
"Nilka, the bottle-neck, the neck without a nape to it"
[Probably the attractiveness of this formula lay rather in the
rhyming of the Russian words: "Nilka, butilka, bashka bez
zatilka!" than in their actual meaning].
Yet their fear of him was in no way reciprocated, nor, for that
matter, did they ever assault him, despite the fact that
occasionally they would throw an old boot or a chip of wood in
his direction-throw it aimlessly, and without really desiring to
hit the mark aimed at.
Also, anything circular--for example, a plate or the wheel of a
toy, engaged Nilushka's attention and led him to caress it as
eagerly as he did globes and balls. Evidently the rotundity of
the object was the point that excited his interest. And as he
turned the object over and over, and felt the flat part of it,
he would mutter:
"But what about the other one?"
What "the other one " meant I could never divine. Nor could
Antipa. Once, drawing the idiot to him, he said:
"Why do you always say 'What about the other one'?"
Troubled and nervous, Nilushka merely muttered some
unintelligible reply as his fingers turned and turned about the
circular object which he was holding.
"Nothing," at length he replied.
"Nothing of what?
"Ah, he is too foolish to understand," said Vologonov with a
sigh as his eyes darkened in meditative fashion.
"Yes, though it may seem foolish to say so," he added, "some
people would envy him."
"Why should they?"
"For more than one reason. To begin with, he lives a life free
from care--he is kept comfortably, and even held in respect.
Since no one can properly understand him, and everyone fears
him, through a belief that folk without wit, the 'blessed ones
of God,' are more especially the Almighty's favourites than
persons possessed of understanding. Only a very wise man could
deal with such a matter, and the less so in that it must be
remembered that more than one 'blessed one' has become a Saint,
while some of those possessed of understanding have gone--well,
have gone whither? Yes, indeed!"
And, thoughtfully contracting the bushy eyebrows which looked as
though they had been taken from the face of another man,
Vologonov thrust his hands up his sleeves, and stood eyeing
Nilushka shrewdly with his intangible gaze.
Never did Felitzata say for certain who the boy's father had
been, but at least it was known to me that in vague terms she
had designated two men as such--the one a young " survey
student," and the other a merchant by name Viporotkov, a man
notorious to the whole town as a most turbulent rake and bully.
But once when she and Antipa and I were seated gossiping at the
entrance-gates, and I inquired of her whether Nilushka's father
were still surviving, she replied in a careless way:
"He is so, damn him!"
"Then who is he? "
Felitzata, as usual, licked her faded, but still comely, lips
with the tip of her tongue before she replied:
"Ah!" Vologonov exclaimed with unexpected animation. "That,
then, explains things. At all events, we have in it an
intelligible THEORY of things."
Whereafter, he expounded to us at length, and with no sparing of
details, the reason why a monk should have been Nilushka's
father rather than either the merchant or the young "survey
student." And as Vologonov proceeded he grew unwontedly
enthusiastic, and went so far as to clench his fists until
presently he heaved a sigh, as though mentally hurt, and said
frowningly and reproachfully to the woman:
"Why did you never tell us this before? It was exceedingly
negligent of you."
Felitzata looked at the old man with sarcasm and sauciness
gleaming in her brown eyes. Suddenly, however, she contracted
her brows, counterfeited a sigh, and whined:
"Ah, I was good-looking then, and desired of all. In those days
I had both a good heart and a happy nature."
"But the monk may prove to have been an important factor in the
question," was Antipa's thoughtful remark.
"Yes, and many another man than he has run after me for his
pleasure," continued Felitzata in a tone of reminiscence. This
led Vologonov to cough, rise to his feet, lay his hand upon the
woman's claret-coloured sleeve of satin, and say sternly:
"Do you come into my room, for I have business to transact with
As she complied she smiled and winked at me. And so the pair
departed--he shuffling carefully with his bandy legs, and she
watching her steps as though at any moment she might collapse on
to her left side.
Thenceforth, Felitzata visited Vologonov almost daily; and once
during the time of two hours or so that the pair were occupied
in drinking tea I heard, through the partition-wall, the old man
say in vigorous, level, didactical tones:
"These tales and rumours ought not to be dismissed save with
caution. At least ought they to be given the benefit of the
doubt. For, though all that he says may SEEM to us unintelligible,
there may yet be enshrined therein a meaning, such as--"
"You say a meaning?"
"Yes, a meaning which, eventually, will be vouchsafed to you in
a vision. For example, you may one day see issue from a dense
forest a man of God, and hear him cry aloud: Felitzata, Oh
servant of God, Oh sinner most dark of soul--"
"What a croaking, to be sure!"
"Be silent! No nonsense! Do you blame yourself rather than sing
your own praises. And in that vision you may hear the man of God
cry: 'Felitzata, go you forth and do that which one who shall
meet you may request you to perform!' And, having gone forth,
you may find the man of God to be the monk whom we have spoken
"A-a-ah!" the woman drawled with an air of being about to say
"Have I, this time, abused you?"
"I have an idea that the man of God will be holding a crook."
"Of course," assented Felitzata.
Similarly, on another occasion, did I hear Antipa mutter
confidentially to his companion:
"The fact that all his sayings are so simple is not a
favourable sign. For, you see, they do not harmonise with the
affair in its entirety--in such a connection words should be
mysterious, and so, able to be interpreted in more than one
way, seeing that the more meanings words possess, the more are
those words respected and heeded by mankind."
"Why so?" queried Felitzata.
"Why so?" re-echoed Vologonov irritably. "Are we not, then,
to respect ANYONE or ANYTHING? Only he is worthy of respect who
does not harm his fellows; and of those who do not harm their
fellows there are but few. To this point you must pay
attention--you must teach him words of variable import, words
more abstract, as well as more sonorous."
"But I know no such words."
"I will repeat to you a few, and every night, when he goes to
bed, you shall repeat them to HIM. For example: 'Adom ispolneni,
pokaites'[Do ye people who are filled with venom repent]. And
mark that the exact words of the Church be adhered to. For
instance, 'Dushenbitzi, pozhaleite Boga, okayannie,' [Murderers
of the soul, accursed ones, repent ye before God.] must be said
rather than 'Dushenbitzi, pozhaleite Boga, okayanni,' since the
latter, though the shorter form, is also not the correct one.
But perhaps I had better instruct the lad myself."
"Certainly that would be the better plan."
So from that time onwards Vologonov fell to stopping Nilushka in
the street, and repeating to him something or another in his
kindly fashion. Once he even took him by the hand, and, leading
him to his room, and giving him something to cat, said
"Say this after me. 'Do not hasten, Oh ye people.' Try if you
can say that."
"'A lantern,'" began Nilushka civilly.
"'A lantern?' Yes. Well, go on, and say, 'I am a lantern unto
"I want to sing, it."
"There is no need for that, though presently you shall sing it.
For the moment your task is to learn the correct speaking of
things. So say after me--"
"0 Lo-ord, have mercy!" came in a quiet, thoughtful chant from
the idiot. Whereafter he added in the coaxing tone of a child:
"We shall all of us have to die."
"Yes, but come, come! " expostulated Vologonov. " What are you
blurting out NOW? That much I know without your telling
me--always have I known, little friend, that each of us is
hastening towards his death. Yet your want of understanding
exceeds what should be."
"Dogs? Now, enough, little fellow."
"Dogs run like chickens. They run here, in the ravine,"
continued Nilushka in the murmuring accents of a child of three.
"Nevertheless," mused Vologonov, "even that seeming nothing of
his may mean something. Yes, there may lie in it a great deal.
Now, say: 'Perdition will arise before him who shall hasten.'"
"No, I want to SING something."
With a splutter Vologonov said:
"Truly you are a difficult subject to deal with!"
And with that he fell to pacing the floor with long, thoughtful
strides as the idiot's voice cried in quavering accents:
"O Lo-ord, have me-ercy upon us!"
Thus the winsome Nilushka proved indispensable to the foul,
mean, unhealthy life of the suburb. Of that life he coloured and
rounded off the senselessness, the ugliness, the superfluity. He
resembled an apple hanging forgotten on a gnarled old worm-eaten
tree, whence all the fruit and the leaves have fallen until only
the branches wave in the autumn wind. Rather, he resembled a
sole-surviving picture in the pages of a ragged, soiled old book
which has neither a beginning nor an ending, and therefore can
no longer be read, is no longer worth the reading, since now its
pages contain nothing intelligible.
And as smiling his gracious smile, the lad's pathetic,
legendary figure flitted past the mouldy buts and cracked fences
and riotous beds of nettles, there would readily recur to the
memory, and succeed one another, visions of some of the finer
and more reputable personages of Russian lore--there would file
before one's mental vision, in endless sequence, men whose
biographies inform us how, in fear for their souls, they left
the life of the world, and, hieing them to the forests and the
caves, abandoned mankind for the wild things of nature. And at
the same time would there recur to one's memory poems concerning
the blind and the poor-in particular, the poem concerning Alexei
the Man of God, and all the multitude of other fair, but
unsubstantial, forms wherein Russia has embodied her sad and
terrified soul, her humble and protesting grief. Yet it was a
process to depress one almost to the point of distraction.
Once, forgetting that Nilushka was imbecile, I conceived an
irrepressible desire to talk with him, and to read him good
poetry, and to tell him both of the world's youthful hopes and
of my own personal thoughts.
The occasion happened on a day when, as I was sitting on the
edge of the ravine, and dangling my legs over the ravine's
depths, the lad came floating towards me as though on air. In
his hands, with their fingers as slender as a girl's, he was
holding a large leaf; and as he gazed at it the smile of his
clear blue eyes was, as it were, pervading him from head to foot.
"Whither, Nilushka?" said I.
With a start he raised his head and eyes heavenward. Then
timidly he glanced at the blue shadow of the ravine, and
extended to me his leaf, over the veins of which there was
crawling a ladybird.
"A bukan," he observed.
"It is so. And whither are you going to take it?"
"We shall all of us die. I was going to take and bury it."
"But it is alive; and one does not bury things before they are
Nilushka closed and opened his eyes once or twice.
"I should like to sing something," he remarked.
"Rather, do you SAY something."
He glanced at the ravine again--his pink nostrils quivering and
dilating-- then sighed as though he was weary, and in all
unconsciousness muttered a foul expression. As he did so I
noticed that on the portion of his neck below his right ear
there was a large birthmark, and that, covered with golden down
like velvet, and resembling in shape a bee, it seemed to be
endowed with a similitude of life, through the faint beating of
a vein in its vicinity.
Presently the ladybird raised her upper wings as though she were
preparing for flight; whereupon Nilushka sought with a finger to
detain her, and, in so doing, let fall the leaf, and enabled the
insect to detach itself and fly away at a low level. Upon that,
bending forward with arms outstretched, the idiot went softly in
pursuit, much as though he himself were launching his body into
leisurely flight, but, when ten paces away, stopped, raised his
face to heaven, and, with arms pendent before him, and the palms
of his hands turned outwards as though resting on something
which I could not see, remained fixed and motionless.
From the ravine there were tending upwards towards the sunlight
some green sprigs of willow, with dull yellow flowers and a
clump of grey wormwood, while the damp cracks which seamed the
clay of the ravine were lined with round leaves of the
"mother-stepmother plant," and round about us little birds were
hovering, and from both the bushes and the bed of the ravine
there was ascending the moist smell of decay. Yet over our heads
the sky was clear, as the sun, now sole occupant of the heavens,
declined slowly in the direction of the dark marshes across the
river; only above the roofs of Zhitnaia Street could there be
seen fluttering about in alarm a flock of snow-white pigeons,
while waving below them was the black besom which had, as it
were, swept them into the air, and from afar one could hear the
sound of an angry murmur, the mournful, mysterious murmur of the
Whiningly, like an old man, a child of the suburb was raising
its voice in lamentation; and as I listened to the sound, it put
me in mind of a clerk reading Vespers amid the desolation of an
empty church. Presently a brown dog passed us with shaggy head
despondently pendent, and eyes as beautiful as those of a
And, to complete the picture, there was standing-- outlined
against the nearest shanty of the suburb, a shanty which lay at
the extreme edge of the ravine-there was standing, face to the
sun, and back to the town, as though preparing for flight, the
straight, slender form of the boy who, while alien to all,
caressed all with the eternally incomprehensible smile of his
angel-like eyes. Yes, that golden birthmark so like a bee I can
see to this day!
Two weeks later, on a Sunday at mid-day, Nilushka passed into
the other world. That day, after returning home from late Mass,
and handing to his mother a couple of wafers which had been
given him as a mark of charity, the lad said:
"Mother, please lay out my bed on the chest, for I think that I
am going to lie down for the last time."
Yet the words in no way surprised Felitzata, for he had often
before remarked, before retiring to rest:
"Some day we shall all of us have to die."
At the same time, whereas, on previous occasions, Nilushka had
never gone to sleep without first of all singing to himself his
little song, and then chanting the eternal, universal "Lord,
have mercy upon us! " he, on this occasion, merely folded his
hands upon his breast, closed his eyes, and relapsed into
That day Felitzata had dinner, and then departed on business of
her own; and when she returned in the evening, she was astonished
to find that her son was still asleep. Next, on looking closer
at him, she perceived that he was dead.
"I looked," she related plaintively to some of the suburban
residents who came running to her cot, "and perceived his
little feet to be blue; and since it was only just before Mass
that I had washed his hands with soap, I remarked the more
readily that his feet were become less white than his hands. And
when I felt one of those hands, I found that it had stiffened."
On Felitzata's face, as she recounted this, there was manifest a
nervous expression. Likewise, her features were a trifle
flushed. Yet gleaming also through the tears in her languorous
eyes there was a sense of relief--one might almost have said a
sense of joy.
"Next," continued she, "I looked closer still, and then fell
on my knees before the body, sobbing: '0h my darling, whither
art thou fled? 0h God, wherefore hast Thou taken him from me?' "
Here Felitzata inclined her head upon her left shoulder
contracted her brows over her mischievous eyes, clasped her
hands to her breast, and fell into the lament:
Oh, gone is my dove, my radiant moon!
0 star of mine eyes, thou hast set too soon!
In darksome depths thy light lies drown'd,
And time must yet complete its round,
And the trump of the Second Advent sound,
Ere ever my--
"Here, you! Hold your tongue!" grunted Vologonov irritably.
For myself, I had, that day, been walking in the forest, until,
as I returned, I was brought up short before the windows of
Felitzata's cot by the fact that some of the erstwhile turbulent
denizens of the suburb were whispering softly together as, with
an absence of all noise, they took turns to raise themselves on
tiptoe, and, craning their necks, to peer into one of the black
window-spaces. Yes, like bees on the step of a hive did they
look, and on the great majority of faces, and in the great
majority of eyes, there was quivering an air of tense, nervous
Only Vologonov was nudging Felitzata, and saying to her in a
loud, authoritative tone:
"Very ready are you to weep, but I should like first to hear
the exact circumstances of the lad's death."
Thus invited, the woman wiped her eyes with the sleeve of her
bodice, licked her lips, heaved a prolonged sigh, and fell to
regarding Antipa's red, hardbitten face with the cheerful,
unabashed glance of a person who is under the influence of
liquor. From under her white head-band there had fallen over her
temples and her right cheek a few wisps of golden hair; and
indeed, as she drew herself up, and tossed her head and bosom,
and smoothed out and stretched the creases in her bodice, she
looked less than her years. Everyone now fell to eyeing her in
an attentive silence, though not, it would seem, without a touch
Abruptly, sternly, the old man inquired:
"Did the lad ever complain of ill-health?"
"No, never," Felitzata replied. "Never once did he speak of
"And he had not been beaten?"
"Oh, how can you ask me such a thing, and especially seeing
"I did not say beaten by YOU."
"Well, I cannot answer for anyone else, but at least had he no
mark on his body, seeing that when I lifted the smock I could
find nothing save for scratches on legs and back."
Her tone now had in it a new ring, a ring of increased
assurance, and when she had finished she closed her bright eyes
languidly before heaving a soft, as it were, voluptuous, and,
withal, very audible sigh.
Someone here murmured:
"She DID use to beat him."
"At all events she used to lose her temper with him."
This led to the putting of a further dozen or so of leading
questions; whereafter Antipa, for a while, preserved a
suggestive silence, and the crowd too remained silent, as though
it had suddenly been lulled to slumber. Only at long last, and
with a clearing of his throat, did Antipa say:
"Friends, we must suppose that God, of His infinite Mercy, has
vouchsafed to us here a special visitation, in that, as all of
us have perceived, a lad bereft of wit, the same radiant lad
whom all of us have known, has here abided in the closest of
communion with the Blessed Dispenser of life on earth."
Then I moved away, for upon my heart there was pressing a burden
of unendurable sorrow, and I was yearning, oh, so terribly, to
see Nilushka once more.
The back portion of Felitzata's cot stood a little sunken into
the ground, so that the front portion had its cold window panes
and raised sash tilted a trifle towards the remote heavens. I
bent my head, and entered by the open door. Near the threshold
Nilushka was lying on a narrow chest against the wall. The folds
of a dark-red pillow of fustian under the head set off to
perfection the pale blue tint of his round, innocent face under
its corona of golden curls; and though the eyes were closed, and
the lips pressed tightly together, he still seemed to be smiling
in his old quiet, but joyous, way. In general, the tall, thin
figure on the mattress of dark felt, with its bare legs, and its
slender hands and wrists folded across the breast, reminded me
less of an angel than of a certain image of the Holy Child with
which a blackened old ikon had rendered me familiar from my
Everything amid the purple gloom was still. Even the flies were
forbearing to buzz. Only from the street was there grating
through the shaded window the strong, roguish voice of Felitzata
as it traced the strange, lugubrious word-pattern:
With my bosom pressed to the warm, grey earth,
To thee, grey earth, to thee, 0h my mother of old,
I beseech thee, I who am a mother like thee,
And a mother in pain, to enfold in thy arms
This my son, this my dead son, this my ruby,
This my drop of my heart's blood, this my--
Suddenly I caught sight of Antipa standing in the doorway. He
was wiping his eyes with the back of his hand. Presently in a
gruff and unsteady voice he said:
"It is all very fine for you to weep, good woman, but the
present is not the right moment to sing such verses as
those--they were meant, rather, to be sung in a graveyard at the
side of a tomb. Well, tell me everything without reserve.
Important is it that I should know EVERYTHING."
Whereafter, having crossed himself with a faltering hand, he
carefully scrutinised the corpse, and at last let his eyes halt
upon the lad's sweet features. Then he muttered sadly:
"How extraordinarily he has grown! Yes, death has indeed
enlarged him! Ah, well, so be it! Soon I too shall have to be
stretching myself out. Oh that it were now!"
Then with cautious movements of his deformed fingers he
straightened the folds of the lad's smock, and drew it over the
legs. Whereafter he pressed his flushed lips to the hem of the
Said I to him at that moment:
"What is it that you have been wanting of him? Why is it that
you have been trying to teach him strange words?"
Straightening himself, and glancing at me with dim eyes, Antipa
"What is it that I have been wanting of him?" To the repetition
he added with manifest sincerity, though also with a
self-depreciatory movement of the head:
"To tell the truth, I scarcely know WHAT it is that I have been
wanting of him. By God I do not. Yet, as one speaking the truth
in the presence of death, I say that never during my long
lifetime had I so desired aught else. . . . Yes, I have waited
and waited for fortune to reveal it to me; and ever has fortune
remained mute and tongueless. Foolish was it of me to have
expected otherwise, to have expected, for instance, that some
day there might occur something marvellous, something
With a short laugh, he indicated the corpse with his eyes, and
continued more firmly:
"Yes, bootless was it to have expected anything from such a
source as that. Never, despite one's wishes, was anything
possible of acquisition thence. . . This is usually the case.
Felitzata, as a clever woman indeed (albeit one cold of heart),
was for having her son accounted a God's fool, and thereby
gaining some provision against her old age."
"But you yourself were the person who suggested that? You
yourself wished it? "
Presently. thrusting his hands up his sleeves, he added dully
"Yes, I DID wish it. Why not, indeed, seeing that at least it
would have brought comfort to the poor people of this place?
Sometimes I feel very sorry for them with their bitter,
troublous lives--lives which may be the lives of rogues and
villains, yet are lives which have produced amongst us a
pravednik," [A "just person," a human being without sin].
All the evening sky was now aflame. Upon the ear there fell the
When snow has veiled the earth in white,
The snowy plain the wild wolves tread.
They wail for the cheering warmth of spring
As I bewail the bairn that's dead.
Vologonov listened for a moment. Then he said firmly:
"These are mere accesses of impulse which come upon her. And
that is only what might be expected. Even as in song or in vice
there is no holding her, so remorse, when it has fastened upon
such a woman's heart, will know no bounds. I may tell you that
on one occasion two young merchants took her, stripped her stark
naked, and drove her in their carriage down Zhitnaia Street,
with themselves sitting on the seats of the vehicle, and
Felitzata standing upright between them--yes, in a state of
nudity! Thereafter they beat her almost to death."
As I stepped out into the dark, narrow vestibule, Antipa, who
was following me, muttered:
"Such a lament as hers could come only of genuine grief."
We found Felitzata in front of the hut, with her back covering
the window. There, with hands pressed to her bosom, and her
skirt all awry, she was straining her dishevelled head towards
the heavens, while the evening breeze, stirring her fine auburn
hair, scattered it promiscuously over her flushed,
sharply-defined features and wildly protruding eyes. A bizarre,
pitiable, and extraordinary figure did she cut as she wailed in
a throaty voice which constantly gathered strength:
0h winds of ice, winds cruel and rude,
Press on my heart till its throbbings fail!
Arrest the current of my blood!
Turn these hot melting tears to hail!
Before her there was posted a knot of women, compassionate
contemplators of the singer's distracted, grief-wrought
features. Through the ravine's dark opening I could see the sun
sinking below the suburb before plunging into the marshy forest
and having his disk pierced by sharp, black tips of pine trees.
Already everything around him was red. Already, seemingly, he
had been wounded, and was bleeding to death.
In a town of the steppes where I found life exceedingly dull, the
best and the brightest spot was the cemetery. Often did I use to
walk there, and once it happened that I fell asleep on some
thick, rich, sweet-smelling grass in a cradle-like hollow
between two tombs.
From that sleep I was awakened with the sound of blows being
struck against the ground near my head. The concussion of them
jarred me not a little, as the earth quivered and tinkled like a
bell. Raising myself to a sitting posture, I found sleep still
so heavy upon me that at first my eyes remained blinded with
unfathomable darkness, and could not discern what the matter
was. The only thing that I could see amid the golden glare of
the June sunlight was a wavering blur which at intervals seemed
to adhere to a grey cross, and to make it give forth a
succession of soft creaks.
Presently, however--against my wish, indeed--that wavering blur
resolved itself into a little, elderly man. Sharp-featured, with
a thick, silvery tuft of hair beneath his under lip, and a bushy
white moustache curled in military fashion, on his upper, he
was using the cross as a means of support as, with his
disengaged hand outstretched, and sawing the air, he dug his
foot repeatedly into the ground, and, as he did so, bestowed
upon me sundry dry, covert glances from the depths of a pair of
"What have you got there?" I inquired.
"A snake," he replied in an educated bass voice, and with a
rugged forefinger he pointed downwards; whereupon I perceived
that wriggling on the path at his feet and convulsively
whisking its tail, there was an echidna.
"Oh, it is only a grassworm," I said vexedly.
The old man pushed away the dull, iridescent, rope-like thing
with the toe of his boot, raised a straw hat in salute, and
strode firmly onwards.
"I thank you," I called out; whereupon, he replied without
looking behind him:
"If the thing really WAS a grassworm, of course there was no
Then he disappeared among the tombstones.
Looking at the sky, I perceived the time to be about five
The steppe wind was sighing over the tombs, and causing long
stems of grass to rock to and fro, and freighting the heated air
with the silken rustling of birches and limes and other trees,
and leading one to detect amid the humming of summer a note of
quiet grief eminently calculated to evoke lofty, direct thoughts
concerning life and one's fellow-men.
Veiling with greenery, grey and white tombstones worn with the
snows of winter, crosses streaked with marks of rain, and the
wall with which the graveyard was encircled, the rank vegetation
served to also conceal the propinquity of a slovenly, clamorous
town which lay coated with rich, sooty grime amid an atmosphere
of dust and smells.
As I set off for a ramble among the tombs and tangled grass, I
could discern through openings in the curtain of verdure a
belfry's gilded cross which reared itself solemnly over crosses
and memorials. At the foot of those memorials the sacramental
vestment of the cemetery was studded with a kaleidoscopic sheen
of flowers over which bees and wasps were so hovering and
humming that the grass's sad, prayerful murmur seemed charged
with a song of life which yet did not hinder reflections on
death. Fluttering above me on noiseless wing were birds the
flight of which sometimes made me start, and stand wondering
whether the object before my gaze was really a bird or not: and
everywhere the shimmer of gilded sunlight was setting the
close-packed graveyard in a quiver which made the mounds of its
tombs reminiscent of a sea when, after a storm, the wind has
fallen, and all the green level is an expanse of smooth,
Beyond the wall of the cemetery the blue void of the firmament
was pierced with smoky chimneys of oil-mills and soap factories,
the roofs of which showed up like particoloured stains against
the darker rags and tatters of other buildings; while blinking
in the sunlight I could discern clatter-emitting, windows which
looked to me like watchful eyes. Only on the nearer side of the
wall was a sparse strip of turf dotted over with ragged,
withered, tremulous stems, and beyond this, again, lay the site
of a burnt building which constituted a black patch of
earth-heaps, broken stoves, dull grey ashes, and coal dust. To
heaven gaped the black, noisome mouths of burning-pits wherein
the more economical citizens were accustomed nightly to get rid
of the contents of their dustbins. Among the tall stems of
steppe grass waved large, glossy leaves of ergot; in the
sunlight splinters of broken glass sparkled as though they were
laughing; and, from two spots in the dark brown plot which formed
a semicircle around the cemetery, there projected, like teeth,
two buildings the new yellow paint of which nevertheless made
them look mean and petty amid the tangle of rubbish, pigweed,
groundsel, and dock.
Indolently roaming hither and thither, a few speckled hens
resembled female pedlars, and some pompous red cockerels a
troupe of firemen; in the orifices of the burning-pits a number
of mournful-eyed, homeless dogs were lying sheltered; among the
shoots of the steppe scrub some lean cats were stalking
sparrows; and a band of children who were playing hide-and-seek
among the orifices above-mentioned presented, a pitiful sight as
they went skipping over the filthy earth, disappearing in
the crevices among the piles of heaped-up dirt.
Beyond the site of the burnt-out building there stretched a
series of mean, close-packed huts which, crammed exclusively
with needy folk, stood staring, with their dim, humble eyes of
windows, at the crumbling bricks of the cemetery wall, and the
dense mass of trees which that wall enclosed. Here, in one such
hut, had I myself a lodging in a diminutive attic, which not
only smelt of lamp-oil, but stood in a position to have wafted
to it the least gasp or ejaculation on the part of my landlord,
Iraklei Virubov, a clerk in the local treasury. In short, I
could never glance out of the window at the cemetery on the
other side of the strip of dead, burnt, polluted earth without
reflecting that, by comparison, that cemetery was a place of
sheer beauty, a place of ceaseless attraction.
And ever, that day, as though he had been following me, could
there be sighted among the tombs the dark figure of the old man
who had so abruptly awakened me from slumber; and since his
straw hat reflected the sunlight as brilliantly as the disk of a
sunflower as it meandered hither and thither, I, in my turn,
found myself following him, though thinking, all the while, of
Iraklei Virubov. Only a week was it since Iraklei's wife, a
thin, shrewish, long-nosed woman with green and catlike eyes,
had set forth on a pilgrimage to Kiev, and Iraklei had hastened
to import into the hut a stout, squint-eyed damsel whom he had
introduced to me as his " niece by marriage."
"She was baptised Evdokia," he had said on the occasion
referred to. "Usually, however, I call her Dikanka. Pray be
friendly with her, but remember, also, that she is not a person
with whom to take liberties."
Large, round-shouldered, and clean-shaven like a chef, Virubov
was for ever hitching up breeches which had slipped from a
stomach ruined with surfeits of watermelon. And always were his
fat lips parted as though athirst, and perpetually had he in his
colourless eyes an expression of insatiable hunger.
One evening I overheard a dialogue to the following effect.
"Dikanka, pray come and scratch my back. Yes, between the
shoulder-blades. O-o-oh, that is it. My word, how strong you
Whereat Dikanka had laughed shrilly. And only when I had moved
my chair, and thrown down my book, had the laughter and unctuous
whispering died away, and given place to a whisper of:
"Holy Father Nicholas, pray for us unto God! Is the supper kvas
And softly the pair had departed to the kitchen--there to grunt
and squeal once more like a couple of pigs....
The old man with the grey moustache stepped over the turf with
the elastic stride of youth, until at length he halted before a
large monument in drab granite, and stood reading the
inscription thereon. Featured not altogether in accordance with
the Russian type, he had on a dark-blue jacket, a turned-down
collar, and a black stock finished off with a large bow--the
latter contrasting agreeably with the thick, silvery, as it were
molten, chin-tuft. Also, from the centre of a fierce moustache
there projected a long and gristly nose, while over the grey
skin of his cheeks there ran a network of small red veins. In
the act of raising his hand to his hat (presumably for the
purpose of saluting the dead), he, after conning the dark
letters of the inscription on the tomb, turned a sidelong eye
upon myself; and since I found the fact embarrassing, I frowned,
and passed onward, full, still, of thoughts of the street where
I was residing and where I desired to fathom the mean existence
eked out by Virubov and his "niece."
As usual, the tombs were also being patrolled by Pimesha,
otherwise Pimen Krozootov, a bibulous, broken-down ex-merchant
who used to spend his time in stumbling and falling about the
graves in search of the supposed resting-place of his wife. Bent
of body, Pimesha had a small, bird-like face over-grown with
grey down, the eyes of a sick rabbit, and, in general, the
appearance of having undergone a chewing by a set of sharp
teeth. For the past three years he had thus been roaming the
cemetery, though his legs were too weak to support his
undersized, shattered body; and whenever he caught his foot he
fell, and for long could not rise, but lay gasping and fumbling
among the grass, and rooting it up, and sniffing with a nose as
sharp and red as though the skin had been flayed from it. True,
his wife had been buried at Novotchevkassk, a thousand versts
away, but Pimen refused to credit the fact, and always, on being
told it, stuttered with much blinking of his wet, faded eyes:
"Natasha? Natasha is here."
Also, there used to visit the spot, well-nigh daily, a Madame
Christoforov, a tall old lady who, wearing black spectacles and
a plain grey, shroudlike dress that was trimmed with black
velvet, never failed to have a stick between her abnormally long
fingers. Wizened of face, with cheeks hanging down like bags,
and a knot of grey, rather, grey-green, hair combed over her
temples from under a lace scarf, and almost concealing her ears,
this lady pursued her way with deliberation, and entire
assurance, and yielded the path to no one whom she might
encounter. I have an idea that there lay buried there a son who
had been killed in a roisterers' brawl.
Another habitual visitor was thin-legged, short-sighted Aulic
Councillor Praotzev, ex-schoolmaster. With a book stuffed into
the pocket of his canvas pea-jacket, a white umbrella grasped in
his red hand, and a smile extending to ears as sharp and pointed
as a rabbit's, he could, any Sunday after dinner, be seen
skipping from tomb to tomb, with his umbrella brandished like a
white flag soliciting terms of peace with death.
And, on returning home before the bell rang for Vespers, he
would find that a crowd of boys had collected outside his garden
wall; whereupon, dancing about him like puppies around a stork,
they would fall to shouting in various merry keys:
"The Councillor, the Councillor! Who was it that fell in love
with Madame Sukhinikh, and then fell into the pond? "
Losing his temper, and opening a great mouth, until he looked
like an old rook which is about to caw, the Councillor would
stamp his foot several times, as though preparing to dance to
the boys' shouting, and lower his head, grasp his umbrella like
a bayonet, and charge at the lads with a panting shout of:
"I'll tell your fathers! Oh, I'll tell your mothers!"
As for the Madame Sukhinikh, referred to, she was an old
beggar-woman who, the year round, and in all weathers, sat on a
little bench beside the cemetery wicket, and stuck to it like a
stone. Her large face, a face rendered bricklike by years of
inebriety, was covered with dark blotches born of frostbite,
alcoholic inflammation, sunburn, and exposure to wind, and her
eyes were perpetually in a state of suppuration. Never did
anyone pass her but she proffered a wooden cup in a suppliant
hand, and cried hoarsely, rather as though she were cursing the
"Give something for Christ's sake! Give in memory of your
Once an unexpected storm blew in from the steppes, and brought a
downpour which, overtaking the old woman on her way home, caused
her, her sight being poor, to fall into a pond, whence Praotzev
attempted to rescue her, and into which, in the end, he slipped
himself. From that day onwards he was twitted on the subject by
the boys of the town.
Other frequenters of the cemetery I see before me--dark, silent
figures, figures of persons whom still unsevered cords of memory
seemed to have bound to the place for the rest of their lives,
and compelled to wander, like unburied corpses, in quest of
suitable tombs. Yes, they were persons whom life had rejected,
and death, as yet, refused to accept.
Also, at times there would emerge from the long grass a homeless
dog with large, sullen eyes, eyes startling at once in their
intelligence and in their absolute Ishmaelitism-- until one
almost expected to hear issue from the animal's mouth reproaches
couched in human language.
And sometimes the dog would still remain halted in the cemetery
as, with tail lowered, it swayed its shelterless, shaggy head to
and fro with an air of profound reflection, while occasionally
venting a subdued, long-drawn yelp or howl.
Again, among the dense old lime trees, there would be scurrying
an unseen mob of starlings and jackdaws whose young would,
meanwhile, maintain a soft, hungry piping, a sort of gently
persuasive, chirruping chorus; until in autumn, when the wind
had stripped bare the boughs, these birds' black nests would
come to look like mouldy, rag-swathed heads of human beings
which someone had torn from their bodies and flung into the
trees, to hang for ever around the white, sugarloaf-shaped
church of the martyred St. Barbara. During that autumn season,
indeed, everything in the cemetery's vicinity looked sad and
tarnished, and the wind would wail about the place, and sigh
like a lover who has been driven mad through bereavement . . . .
Suddenly the old man halted before me on the path, and, sternly
extending a hand towards a white stone monument near us, read
"'Under this cross there lies buried the body of the respected
citizen and servant of God, Diomid Petrovitch Ussov,'" etc.,
Whereafter the old man replaced his hat, thrust his hands into
the pockets of his pea-jacket, measured me with eyes dark in
colour, but exceptionally clear for his time of life, and said:
"It would seem that folk could find nothing to say of this man
beyond that he was a 'servant of God.' Now, how can a servant
be worthy of honour at the hand of 'citizens'?"
"Possibly he was an ascetic," was my hazarded conjecture;
whereupon the old man rejoined with a stamp of his foot:
"Then in such case one ought to write--"
"To write what?"
"To write EVERYTHING, in fullest possible detail."
And with the long, firm stride of a soldier my interlocutor
passed onwards towards a more remote portion of the
cemetery--myself walking, this time, beside him. His stature
placed his head on a level with my shoulder only, and caused his
straw hat to conceal his features. Hence, since I wished to look
at him as he discoursed, I found myself forced to walk with head
bent, as though I had been escorting a woman.
"No, that is not the way to do it," presently he continued in
the soft, civil voice of one who has a complaint to present.
"Any such proceeding is merely a mark of barbarism--of a complete
lack of observation of men and life."
With a hand taken from one of his pockets, he traced a large
circle in the air.
"Do you know the meaning of that?" he inquired.
"Its meaning is death," was my diffident reply, made with a
shrug of the shoulders.
A shake of his head disclosed to me a keen, agreeable, finely
cut face as he pronounced the following Slavonic words:
"'Smertu smert vsekonechnie pogublena bwist.'" [Death hath
been for ever overthrown by death."]
"Do you know that passage?" he added presently.
Yet it was in silence that we walked the next ten paces--he
threading his way along the rough, grassy path at considerable
speed. Suddenly he halted, raised his hat from his head, and
proffered me a hand.
"Young man," he said, "let us make one another's better
acquaintance. I am Lieutenant Savva Yaloylev Khorvat, formerly
of the State Remount Establishment, subsequently of the
Department of Imperial Lands. I am a man who, after never having
been found officially remiss, am living in honourable
retirement--a man at once a householder, a widower, and a person
of hasty temper."
Then, after a pause, he added:
"Vice-Governor Khorvat of Tambov is my brother--a younger
brother; he being fifty-five, and I sixty-one, si-i-ixty one."
His speech was rapid, but as precise as though no mistake was
permissible in its delivery.
"Also," he continued, "as a man cognisant of every possible
species of cemetery, I am much dissatisfied with this one. In
fact, never satisfied with such places am I."
Here he brandished his fist in the air, and described a large
arc over the crosses.
"Let us sit down," he said, "and I will explain things."
So, after that we had seated ourselves on a bench beside a white
oratory, and Lieutenant Khorvat had taken off his hat, and with
a blue handkerchief wiped his forehead and the thick silvery
hair which bristled from the knobs of his scalp, he continued:
"Mark you well the word kladbistche." [The word, though
customarily used for cemetery, means, primarily, a
treasure-house.] Here he nudged me with his elbow--continuing,
thereafter, more softly: "In a kladbisiche one might reasonably
look for kladi, for treasures of intellect and enlightenment.
Yet what do we find? Only that which is offensive and insulting.
All of us does it insult, for thereby is an insult paid to all
who, in life, are bearing still their 'cross and burden.' You
too will, one day, be insulted by the system, even as shall I.
Do you understand? I repeat, 'their cross and burden'--the sense
of the words being that, life being hard and difficult, we ought
to honour none but those who STILL are bearing their trials, or
bearing trials for you and me. Now, THESE folk here have ceased
to possess consciousness."
Each time that the old man waved his hat in his excitement, its
small shadow, bird-like, flew along the narrow path, and over
the cross, and, finally, disappeared in the direction of the
Next, distending his ruddy cheeks, twitching his moustache, and
regarding me covertly out of boylike eyes, the Lieutenant
"Probably you are thinking, 'The man with whom I have to deal
is old and half-witted.' But no, young fellow; that is not so,
for long before YOUR time had I taken the measure of life.
Regard these memorials. ARE they memorials? For what do they
commemorate as concerns you and myself? They commemorate, in
that respect, nothing. No, they are not memorials; they are
merely passports or testimonials conferred upon itself by human
stupidity. Under a given cross there may lie a Maria, and under
another one a Daria, or an Alexei, or an Evsei, or someone
else--all 'servants of God,' but not otherwise particularised. An
outrage this, sir! For in this place folk who have lived their
difficult portion of life on earth are seen robbed of that
record of their existences, which ought to have been preserved
for your and my instruction. Yes, A DESCRIPTION OF THE LIFE
LIVED BY A MAN is what matters. A tomb might then become even
more interesting than a novel. Do you follow me?"
"Not altogether," I rejoined.
He heaved a very audible sigh.
"It should be easy enough," was his remark. "To begin with, I
am NOT a 'servant of God.' Rather, I am a man intelligently, of
set purpose, keeping God's holy commandments so far as lies
within my power. And no one, not even God, has any right to
demand of me more than I can give. That is so, is it not?"
"There!" the Lieutenant cried briskly as, cocking his hat, he
assumed a still more truculent air. Then, spreading out his
hands, he growled in his flexible bass:
"What is this cemetery? It is merely a place of show."
At this moment, for some reason or another, there occurred to me
an incident which involved the figure of Iraklei Virubov, the
figure which had carpet slippers on its ponderous feet, thick
lips, a greedy mouth, deceitful eyes, and a frame so huge and
cavernous that the dapper little Lieutenant could have stepped
into it complete.
The day had been a Sunday, and the hour eventide. On the burnt
plot of ground some broken glass had been emitting a reddish
gleam, shoots of ergot had been diffusing their gloss, children
shouting at play, dogs trotting backwards and forwards, and all
things, seemingly, faring well, sunken in the stillness of the
portion of the town adjoining the rolling, vacant steppe, with,
above them, only the sky's level, dull-blue canopy, and around
them, only the cemetery, like an island amidst a sea.
With Virubov, I had been sitting on a bench near the wicket-gate
of his hut, as intermittently he had screwed his lecherous eyes
in the direction of the stout, ox-eyed lacemaker, Madame Ezhov,
who, after disposing of her form on a bank hard-by, had fallen
to picking lice out of the curls of her eight-year-old Petka
Koshkodav. Presently, as swiftly she had rummaged the boy's hair
with fingers grown used to such rapid movement, she had said to
her husband (a dealer in second-hand articles), who had been
seated within doors, and therefore rendered invisible--she had
said with oily derision:
"Oh, yes, you bald-headed old devil, you! Of course you got
your price. Ye-es. Then, fool, you ought to have had a slipper
smacked across that Kalmuck snout of yours. Talk of my price,
Upon this Virubov had remarked with a sigh, and in sluggish,
"To grant the serfs emancipation was a sheer mistake. I am a
humble enough servant of my country, yet I can see the truth of
what I have stated, since it follows as a matter of course. What
ought to have been done is that all the estates of the
landowners should have been conveyed to the Tsar. Beyond a doubt
that is so. Then both the peasantry and the townsfolk, the whole
people, in short, would have had but a single landlord. For
never can the people live properly so long as it is ignorant of
the point where it stands; and since it loves authority, it
loves to have over it an autocratic force, for its control.
Always can it be seen seeking such a force."
Then, bending forward, and infusing into each softly uttered
word a perfect lusciousness of falsity, Virubov had added to his
"Take, for example, the working-woman who stands free of every
"How do I stand free of anything?" the neighbour had retorted,
in complete readiness for a quarrel.
"Oh, I am not speaking in your despite, Pavlushka, but to your
credit," hastily Virubov had protested.
"Then keep your blandishments for that heifer, your 'niece,'"
had been Madame Ezhov's response.
Upon this Virubov had risen heavily, and remarked as he moved
away towards the courtyard:
"All folk need to be supervised by an autocratic eye."
Thereafter had followed a bout of choice abuse between his
neighbour and his " niece,"while Virubov himself, framed in the
wicket-gate, and listening to the contest, had smacked his lips
as he gazed at the pair, and particularly at Madame Ezhov. At
the beginning of the bout Dikanka had screeched:
"It is my opinion, it is my opinion, that--"
"Don't treat me to any of YOUR slop!" the long-fanged Pavla
had interrupted for the benefit of the street in general. And
thus had the affair continued....
Lieutenant Khorvat blew the fag-end of his cigarette from his
mouthpiece, glanced at me, and said with seemingly, a not
over-civil, twitch of his bushy moustache:
"Of what are you thinking, if I might inquire?"
"I am trying to understand you."
"You ought not to find that difficult," was his rejoinder as
again he doffed his hat, and fanned his face with it. "The
whole thing may be summed up in two words. It is that we lack
respect both for ourselves and for our fellow men. Do you follow
His eyes had grown once more young and clear, and, seizing my
hand in his strong and agreeably warm fingers, he continued:
"Why so? For the very simple reason that I cannot respect
myself when I can learn nothing, simply nothing, about my
Moving nearer to me, he added in a mysterious undertone:
"In this Russia of ours none of us really knows why he has come
into existence. True, each of us knows that he was born, and
that he is alive, and that one day he will die; but which of us
knows the reason why all that is so?"
Through renewed excitement, its colour had come back to the
Lieutenant's face, and his gestures became so rapid as to cause
the ring on his finger to flash through the air like the link of
a chain. Also, I was able to detect the fact that on the
small, neat wrist under his left cuff, there was a bracelet
finished with a medallion.
"All this, my good sir, is because (partially through the fact
that men forget the point, and partially through the fact that
that point fails to be understood aright) the WORK done by a
man is concealed from our knowledge. For my own part, I have an
idea, a scheme--yes, a scheme--in two words, a, a--"
"N-n-o-u, n-n-o-u!" the bell of the monastery tolled over the
tombs in languid, chilly accents.
"--a scheme that every town and every village, in fact, every
unit of homogeneous population, should keep a record of the
particular unit's affairs, a, so to speak, 'book of life.' This
'book of life' should be more than a list of the results of the
unit's labour; it should also be a living narrative of the
workaday activities accomplished by each member of the unit. Eh?
And, of course, the record to be compiled without official
interference--solely by the town council or district
administration, or by a special 'board, of life and works' or
some such body, provided only that the task be not carried out
by nominees of the GOVERNMENT. And in that record there should
be entered everything--that is to say, everything of a nature
which ought to be made public concerning every man who
has lived among us, and has since gone from our midst."
Here the Lieutenant stretched out his hand again in the
direction of the tombs.
"My right it is," he added, "to know how those folk there
spent their lives. For it is by their labours and their
thoughts, and even on the product of their bones, that I myself
am now subsisting. You agree, do you not?"
In silence I nodded; whereupon he cried triumphantly:
"Ah! You see, do you? Yes, an indispensable point is it, that
whatsoever a man may have done, whether good or evil, should be
recorded. For example, suppose he has manufactured a stove
specially good for heating purposes; record the fact. Or
suppose he has killed a mad dog; record the fact. Or suppose he
has built a school, or cleansed a dirty street, or been a
pioneer in the teaching of sound farming, or striven, by word
and deed, his life long, to combat official irregularities...
record the fact. Again, suppose a woman has borne ten, or
fifteen, healthy children; record the fact. Yes, and this last
with particular care, since the conferment of healthy children
upon the country is a work of absolute importance."
Further, pointing to a grey headstone with a worn inscription,
he shouted (or almost did so):
"Under that stone lies buried the body of a man who never in
his life loved but one woman, but ONE woman. Now, THAT is a fact
which ought to have been recorded about him for it is not
merely a string of names that is wanted, but a narrative of
deeds. Yes, I have not only a desire, but a RIGHT, to know the
lives which men have lived, and the works which they have
performed; and whenever a man leaves our midst we ought to
inscribe over his tomb full particulars of the 'cross and
burden' which he bore, as particulars ever to be held in
remembrance, and inscribed there both for my benefit and for the
benefit of life in general, as constituting a clear and
circumstantial record of the given career. Why did that man
live? To the question write down, always, the answer in large
and conspicuous characters. Eh?"
This led the Lieutenant's enthusiasm to increase still more as,
for the third time waving his hand in the direction of the
tombs, and mouthing each word, he continued:
"The folk of that town are liars pure and simple, for of set
purpose they conceal the particulars of careers that they may
depreciate those careers in our eyes, and, while showing us the
insignificance of the dead, fill the living with a sense of
similar insignificance, since insignificant folk are the easiest
to manage. Yes, it is a scheme thought out with diabolical
ingenuity. Yet, for myself--well, try and make me do what I don't
intend to do!"
To which, with his face wrinkled with disgust, he added in a
tone like a shot from a pistol:
"Machines are we! Yes, machines, and nothing else!"
Curious was it to watch the old man's excitement as one listened
to the strong bass voice amid the stillness of the cemetery.
Once more over the tombs, there came floating the languid,
metallic notes of " N-n-o-u! N-n-o-u!"
The oily gloss on the withered grass had vanished, faded, and
everything turned dull, though the air remained charged with the
spring perfume of the geraniums, stocks, and narcissi which
encircled some of the graves.
"You see," continued the Lieutenant, "one could not deny that
each of us has his value. By the time that one has lived
threescore years, one perceives that fact very clearly. Never
CONCEAL things, since every life lived ought to be set in the
light. And is capable of being so, in that every man is a
workman for the world at large, and constitutes an instructor in
good or in evil, and that life, when looked into, constitutes,
as a whole, the sum of all the labour done by the aggregate of
us petty, insignificant individuals. That is why we ought not to
hide away a man's work, but to publish it abroad, and to
inscribe on the cross over his tomb his deeds, his services, in
their entirety. Yes, however negligible may have been those
deeds, those services, hold them up for the perusal of those who
can discover good even in what is negligible. NOW do you
"I do," I replied. "Yes, I do."
The bell of the monastery struck two hasty beats--then became
silent, so that only the sad echo of its voice remained
reverberating over the cemetery. Once more my interlocutor drew
out his cigarette-case, silently offered it to myself, and
lighted and puffed industriously at another cigarette. As he did
so his hands, as small and brown as the claws of a bird, shook a
little, and his head, bent down, looked like an Easter egg in
Still smoking, he looked me in the eyes with a self-diffident
frown, and muttered:
"Only through the labour of man does the earth attain
development. And only by familiarising himself with, and
remembering, the past can man obtain support in his work on
In speaking, the Lieutenant lowered his arm; whereupon on to his
wrist there slipped the broad golden bracelet adorned with a
medallion, and there gazed at me thence the miniature of a
fair-haired woman: and since the hand below it was freckled, and
its flexible fingers were swollen out of shape, and had lost
their symmetry, the woman's fine-drawn face looked the more full
of life, and, clearly picked out, could be seen to be smiling a
sweet and slightly imperious smile.
"Your wife or your daughter?" I queried.
"My God! My God!" was, with a subdued sigh, the only response
vouchsafed. Then the Lieutenant raised his arm, and the bracelet
slid back to its resting place under his cuff.
Over the town the columns of curling smoke were growing redder,
and the clattering windows blushing to a tint of pink that
recalled to my memory the livid cheeks of Virubov's "niece," of
the woman in whom, like her uncle, there was nothing that could
provoke one to "take liberties."
Next, there scaled the cemetery wall and stealthily stretched
themselves on the ground, so that they looked not unlike the
far-flung shadows of the cemetery's crosses, a file of dark,
tattered figures of beggars, while on the further side of the
slowly darkening greenery a cantor drawled in sluggish, careless
"Eternal memory of what?" exclaimed Lieutenant Khorvat with an
angry shrug of his shoulders. "Suppose, in his day, a man has
been the best cucumber-salter or mushroom-pickler in a given
town. Or suppose he has been the best cobbler there, or that
once he said something which the street wherein he dwelt can
still remember. Would not THAT man be a man whose record should
be preserved, and made accessible to my recollection?"
And again the Lieutenant's face wreathed itself in solid rings
of pungent tobacco smoke.
Blowing softly for a moment, the wind bent the long stems of
grass in the direction of the declining sun, and died away. All
that remained audible amid the stillness was the peevish voices
of women saying:
"To the left, I say."
"Oh, what is to be done, Tanechka?"
Expelling a fresh cloud of tobacco smoke in cylindrical form,
the old man muttered:
"It would seem that those women have forgotten the precise spot
where their relative or friend happens to lie buried."
As a hawk flew over the sun-reddened belfry-cross, the bird's
shadow glided over a memorial stone near the spot where we were
sitting, glanced off the corner of the stone, and appeared anew
beyond it. And in the watching of this shadow, I somehow found a
Went on the Lieutenant:
"I say that a graveyard ought to evince the victory of life,
the triumph of intellect and of labour, rather than the power of
death. However, imagine how things would work out under my
scheme. Under it the record of which I have spoken would
constitute a history of a town's life which, if anything, would
increase men's respect for their fellows. Yes, such a history as
THAT is what a cemetery ought to be. Otherwise the place is
useless. Similarly will the past prove useless if it can give us
nothing. Yet is such a history ever compiled? If it is, how can
one say that events are brought about by, forsooth, 'servants of
Pointing to the tombs with a gesture as though he were swimming,
he paused for a moment or two.
"You are a good man," I said, "and a man who must have lived a
good and interesting life."
He did not look at me, but answered quietly and thoughtfully:
"At least a man ought to be his fellows' friend, seeing that to
them he is beholden for everything that he possesses and for
everything that he contains. I myself have lived--"
Here, with a contraction of his brows, he fell to gazing about
him, as though he were seeking the necessary word; until,
seeming to fail to find it, he continued gravely:
"Men need to be brought closer together, until life shall have
become better adjusted. Never forget those who are departed,
for anything and everything in the life of a 'servant of God'
may prove instructive and of profound significance."
On the white sides of the memorial-stones, the setting sun was
casting warm lurid reflections, until the stonework looked as
though it had been splashed with hot blood. Moreover, every
thing around us seemed curiously to have swelled and grown
larger and softer and less cold of outline; the whole scene,
though as motionless as ever, appeared to have taken on a sort
of bright-red humidity, and deposited that humidity in purple,
scintillating, quivering dew on the turf's various spikes and
tufts. Gradually, also, the shadows were deepening and
lengthening, while on the further side of the cemetery wall a
cow lowed at intervals, in a gross and drunken fashion, and a
party of fowls cackled what seemed to be curses in response, and
a saw grated and screeched.
Suddenly the Lieutenant burst into a peal of subdued laughter,
and continued to do so until his shoulders shook. At length he
said through the paroxysms, as, giving me a push, he cocked his
"I must confess that, that--that the view which I first took of
you was rather a tragic one. You see, when I saw a man lying
prone on the grass I said to myself: 'H'm! What is that?' Next I
saw a young fellow roaming about the cemetery with a frown
settled on his face, and his breeches bulging; and again I said
"A book is lying in my breeches pocket," I interposed.
"Ah! Then I understand. Yes, I made a mistake, but a very,
welcome one. However, as I say, when I first saw you, I said to
myself: 'There is a man lying near that tomb. Perhaps he has a
bullet, a wound, in his temple?' And, as you know--"
He stopped to wink at me with another outburst of soft,
good-humoured laughter. Then he continued.
"Nevertheless, the scheme of which I have told you cannot really
be called a scheme, since it is merely a fancy of my own. Yet I
SHOULD like to see life lived in better fashion."
He sighed and paused, for evidently he was becoming lost in
"Unfortunately," he continued at last, "the latter is a desire
which I have conceived too late. If only I had done so fifteen
years ago, when I was filling the post of Inspector of the
prison at Usman--"
His left arm stretched itself out, and once more there slid on
to his wrist the bracelet. For a moment he touched its gold with
a rapid, but careful, delicate, movement--then he restored the
trinket to its retreat, rose suddenly, looked about him for a
second or two with a frown, and said in dry, brisk tones as he
gave his iron-grey moustache an energetic twist:
"Now I must be going."
For a while I accompanied him on his way, for I had a keen
desire to hear him say something more in that pleasant, powerful
bass of his; but though he stepped past the gravestones with
strides as careful and regular as those of a soldier on parade,
he failed again to break silence.
Just as we passed the chapel of the monastery there floated
forth into the fair evening stillness, from the bars, of a
window, while yet not really stirring that stillness, a hum of
gruff, lazy, peevish ejaculations. Apparently they were uttered
by two persons who were engaged in a dispute, since one of them
"What have you done? What have you done?"
And the other responded carelessly:
"Hold your tongue, now! Pray hold your tongue!"
ON A RIVER STEAMER
The water of the river was smooth, and dull silver of tint.
Also, so barely perceptible was the current that it seemed to be
almost stagnant under the mist of the noontide heat, and only by
the changes in the aspect of the banks could one realise how
quietly and evenly the river was carrying on its surface the old
yellow-hulled steamer with the white-rimmed funnel, and also the
clumsy barge which was being towed in her wake.
Dreamily did the floats of the paddle-wheels slap the water.
Under the planks of the deck the engines toiled without ceasing.
Steam hissed and panted. At intervals the engine-room bell
jarred upon the car. At intervals, also, the tiller-chains slid
to and fro with a dull, rattling sound. Yet, owing to the
somnolent stillness settled upon the river, these sounds
escaped, failed to catch one's attention.
Through the dryness of the summer the water was low.
Periodically, in the steamer's bow, a deck hand like a king, a
man with a lean,, yellow, black-avised face and a pair of
languishing eyes, threw overboard a polished log as in tones of
melting melancholy he chanted:
"Se-em, se-em, shest!"
["Seven, seven, six!"(the depth of water, reckoned in sazheni
It was as though he were wailing:
"Seyem, seyem, a yest-NISHEVO"
[Let us eat, let us eat, but to eat there is--nothing]
Meanwhile, the steamer kept turning her stearlet-like [The
stearlet is a fish of the salmon species] prow deliberately and
alternately towards either bank as the barge yawed behind her,
and the grey hawser kept tautening and quivering, and sending
out showers of gold and silver sparkles. Ever and anon, too, the
captain on the bridge kept shouting, hoarsely through a
Under the stem of the barge a wave ran which, divided into a
pair of white wings, serpentined away towards either bank.
In the meadowed distance peat seemed to be being burnt, and over
the black forest there had gathered an opalescent cloud of smoke
which also suffused the neighbouring marshes.
To the right, the bank of the river towered up into lofty,
precipitous, clayey slopes intersected with ravines wherein
aspens and birches found shelter.
Everything ashore had about it a restful, sultry, deserted look.
Even in the dull blue, torrid sky there was nought save a
In endless vista were meadows studded with trees--trees sleeping
in lonely isolation, and, in places, surmounted with either the
cross of a rural church which looked like a day star or the
sails of a windmill; while further back from the banks lay the
tissue cloths of ripening crops, with, here and there, a human
Throughout, the scene was indistinct. Everything in it was calm,
touchingly simple, intimate, intelligible, grateful to the soul.
So much so that as one contemplated the slowly-varying vistas
presented by the loftier bank, the immutable stretches of
meadowland, and the green, timbered dance-rings where the forest
approached the river, to gaze at itself in the watery mirror,
and recede again into the peaceful distance; as one gazed at all
this one could not but reflect that nowhere else could a spot
more simply, more kindly, more beautiful be found, than these peaceful
shores of the great river.
Yet already a few shrubs by the river's margin were beginning to
display yellow leaves, though the landscape as a whole was
smiling the doubtful, meditative smile of a young bride who,
about to bear her first child, is feeling at once nervous and
delighted at the prospect.
The hour was past noon, and the third-class passengers, languid
with fatigue induced by the heat, were engaged in drinking
either tea or beer. Seated mostly on the bulwarks of the
steamer, they silently scanned the banks, while the deck
quivered, crockery clattered at the buffet, and the deck hand in
the bows sighed soporifically:
Six! Six! Six-and-a-half!
From the engine-room a grimy stoker emerged. Rolling along, and
scraping his bare feet audibly against the deck, he approached
the boatswain's cabin, where the said boatswain, a fair-haired,
fair-bearded man from Kostroma was standing in the doorway. The
senior official contracted his rugged eyes quizzically, and
"Whither in such a hurry?"
"To pick a bone with Mitka."
With a wave of his black hand the stoker resumed his way, while
the boatswain, yawning, fell to casting his eyes about him. On a
locker near the companion of the engine-room a small man in a
buff pea-jacket, a new cap, and a pair of boots on which there
were clots of dried mud, was seated.
Through lack of diversion the boatswain began to feel inclined
to hector somebody, so cried sternly to the man in question:
"Hi there, chawbacon!"
The man on the locker turned about--turned nervously, and much as
a bullock turns. That is to say, he turned with his whole body.
"Why have you gone and put yourself THERE?" inquired the
boatswain. "Though there is a notice to tell you NOT to sit
there, it is there that you must go and sit! Can't you read?"
Rising, the passenger inspected not the notice, but the locker.
Then he replied:
"Read? Yes, I CAN read."
"Then why sit there where you oughtn't to?"
"I cannot see any notice."
"Well, it's hot there anyway, and the smell of oil comes up
from the engines. . . . Whence have you come?"
"Long from home?"
"Three weeks, about."
"Any rain at your place?"
"No. But why?"
"How come your boots are so muddy?"
The passenger lowered his head, extended cautiously first one
foot, and then the other, scrutinised them both, and replied:
"You see, they are not my boots."
With a roar of laughter that caused his brilliant beard to
project from his chin, the boatswain retorted:
"I think you must drink a bit."
The passenger said nothing more, but retreated quietly, and with
short strides, to the stem. From the fact that the sleeves of
his pea-jacket reached far below his wrists, it was clear that
the garment had originated from the shoulders of another man.
As for the boatswain, on noting the circumspection and
diffidence with which the passenger walked, he frowned, sucked
at his beard, approached a sailor who was engaged in vigorously
scrubbing the brass on the door of the captain's cabin with a
naked palm, and said in an undertone:
"Did you happen to notice the gait of that little man there in
the light pea-jacket and dirty boots? "
"Then see here. Do keep an eye upon him."
"But why? Is he a bad lot?"
"Something like it, I think."
"I will then."
At a table near the hatchway of the first-class cabin, a fat man
in grey was drinking beer. Already he had reached a state of
moderate fuddlement, for his eyes were protruding sightlessly
and staring unwinkingly at the opposite wall. Meanwhile, a number
of flies were swarming in the sticky puddles on the table, or
else crawling over his greyish beard and the brick-red skin of
his motionless features.
The boatswain winked in his direction, and remarked: