“Don’t distress yourself, I beg.” The elder got on to his feeble legs, and taking Pyotr Alexandrovitch by both hands, made him sit down again. “I beg you not to disturb yourself. I particularly beg you to be my guest.” And with a bow he went back and sat down again on his little sofa.
[pg 041] “Great elder, speak! Do I annoy you by my vivacity?” Fyodor Pavlovitch cried suddenly, clutching the arms of his chair in both hands, as though ready to leap up from it if the answer were unfavorable.
“I earnestly beg you, too, not to disturb yourself, and not to be uneasy,” the elder said impressively. “Do not trouble. Make yourself quite at home. And, above all, do not be so ashamed of yourself, for that is at the root of it all.”
“Quite at home? To be my natural self? Oh, that is much too much, but I accept it with grateful joy. Do you know, blessed Father, you’d better not invite me to be my natural self. Don’t risk it…. I will not go so far as that myself. I warn you for your own sake. Well, the rest is still plunged in the mists of uncertainty, though there are people who’d be pleased to describe me for you. I mean that for you, Pyotr Alexandrovitch. But as for you, holy being, let me tell you, I am brimming over with ecstasy.”
He got up, and throwing up his hands, declaimed, “Blessed be the womb that bare thee, and the paps that gave thee suck–the paps especially. When you said just now, ‘Don’t be so ashamed of yourself, for that is at the root of it all,’ you pierced right through me by that remark, and read me to the core. Indeed, I always feel when I meet people that I am lower than all, and that they all take me for a buffoon. So I say, ‘Let me really play the buffoon. I am not afraid of your opinion, for you are every one of you worse than I am.’ That is why I am a buffoon. It is from shame, great elder, from shame; it’s simply over-sensitiveness that makes me rowdy. If I had only been sure that every one would accept me as the kindest and wisest of men, oh, Lord, what a good man I should have been then! Teacher!” he fell suddenly on his knees, “what must I do to gain eternal life?”
It was difficult even now to decide whether he was joking or really moved.
Father Zossima, lifting his eyes, looked at him, and said with a smile:
“You have known for a long time what you must do. You have sense enough: don’t give way to drunkenness and incontinence of speech; don’t give way to sensual lust; and, above all, to the [pg 042] love of money. And close your taverns. If you can’t close all, at least two or three. And, above all–don’t lie.”
“You mean about Diderot?”
“No, not about Diderot. Above all, don’t lie to yourself. The man who lies to himself and listens to his own lie comes to such a pass that he cannot distinguish the truth within him, or around him, and so loses all respect for himself and for others. And having no respect he ceases to love, and in order to occupy and distract himself without love he gives way to passions and coarse pleasures, and sinks to bestiality in his vices, all from continual lying to other men and to himself. The man who lies to himself can be more easily offended than any one. You know it is sometimes very pleasant to take offense, isn’t it? A man may know that nobody has insulted him, but that he has invented the insult for himself, has lied and exaggerated to make it picturesque, has caught at a word and made a mountain out of a molehill–he knows that himself, yet he will be the first to take offense, and will revel in his resentment till he feels great pleasure in it, and so pass to genuine vindictiveness. But get up, sit down, I beg you. All this, too, is deceitful posturing….”
“Blessed man! Give me your hand to kiss.”
Fyodor Pavlovitch skipped up, and imprinted a rapid kiss on the elder’s thin hand. “It is, it is pleasant to take offense. You said that so well, as I never heard it before. Yes, I have been all my life taking offense, to please myself, taking offense on esthetic grounds, for it is not so much pleasant as distinguished sometimes to be insulted–that you had forgotten, great elder, it is distinguished! I shall make a note of that. But I have been lying, lying positively my whole life long, every day and hour of it. Of a truth, I am a lie, and the father of lies. Though I believe I am not the father of lies. I am getting mixed in my texts. Say, the son of lies, and that will be enough. Only … my angel … I may sometimes talk about Diderot! Diderot will do no harm, though sometimes a word will do harm. Great elder, by the way, I was forgetting, though I had been meaning for the last two years to come here on purpose to ask and to find out something. Only do tell Pyotr Alexandrovitch not to interrupt me. Here is my question: Is it true, great Father, that the story is told somewhere in the Lives of the Saints [pg 043] of a holy saint martyred for his faith who, when his head was cut off at last, stood up, picked up his head, and, ‘courteously kissing it,’ walked a long way, carrying it in his hands. Is that true or not, honored Father?”
“No, it is untrue,” said the elder.
“There is nothing of the kind in all the lives of the saints. What saint do you say the story is told of?” asked the Father Librarian.
“I do not know what saint. I do not know, and can’t tell. I was deceived. I was told the story. I had heard it, and do you know who told it? Pyotr Alexandrovitch Miusov here, who was so angry just now about Diderot. He it was who told the story.”
“I have never told it you, I never speak to you at all.”
“It is true you did not tell me, but you told it when I was present. It was three years ago. I mentioned it because by that ridiculous story you shook my faith, Pyotr Alexandrovitch. You knew nothing of it, but I went home with my faith shaken, and I have been getting more and more shaken ever since. Yes, Pyotr Alexandrovitch, you were the cause of a great fall. That was not a Diderot!”
Fyodor Pavlovitch got excited and pathetic, though it was perfectly clear to every one by now that he was playing a part again. Yet Miusov was stung by his words.
“What nonsense, and it is all nonsense,” he muttered. “I may really have told it, some time or other … but not to you. I was told it myself. I heard it in Paris from a Frenchman. He told me it was read at our mass from the Lives of the Saints … he was a very learned man who had made a special study of Russian statistics and had lived a long time in Russia…. I have not read the Lives of the Saints myself, and I am not going to read them … all sorts of things are said at dinner–we were dining then.”
“Yes, you were dining then, and so I lost my faith!” said Fyodor Pavlovitch, mimicking him.
“What do I care for your faith?” Miusov was on the point of shouting, but he suddenly checked himself, and said with contempt, “You defile everything you touch.”
The elder suddenly rose from his seat. “Excuse me, gentlemen, for leaving you a few minutes,” he said, addressing all his guests. “I have visitors awaiting me who arrived before you. But don’t [pg 044] you tell lies all the same,” he added, turning to Fyodor Pavlovitch with a good-humored face. He went out of the cell. Alyosha and the novice flew to escort him down the steps. Alyosha was breathless: he was glad to get away, but he was glad, too, that the elder was good-humored and not offended. Father Zossima was going towards the portico to bless the people waiting for him there. But Fyodor Pavlovitch persisted in stopping him at the door of the cell.
“Blessed man!” he cried, with feeling. “Allow me to kiss your hand once more. Yes, with you I could still talk, I could still get on. Do you think I always lie and play the fool like this? Believe me, I have been acting like this all the time on purpose to try you. I have been testing you all the time to see whether I could get on with you. Is there room for my humility beside your pride? I am ready to give you a testimonial that one can get on with you! But now, I’ll be quiet; I will keep quiet all the time. I’ll sit in a chair and hold my tongue. Now it is for you to speak, Pyotr Alexandrovitch. You are the principal person left now–for ten minutes.”
Chapter III. Peasant Women Who Have Faith
Near the wooden portico below, built on to the outer wall of the precinct, there was a crowd of about twenty peasant women. They had been told that the elder was at last coming out, and they had gathered together in anticipation. Two ladies, Madame Hohlakov and her daughter, had also come out into the portico to wait for the elder, but in a separate part of it set aside for women of rank.
Madame Hohlakov was a wealthy lady, still young and attractive, and always dressed with taste. She was rather pale, and had lively black eyes. She was not more than thirty-three, and had been five years a widow. Her daughter, a girl of fourteen, was partially paralyzed. The poor child had not been able to walk for the last six months, and was wheeled about in a long reclining chair. She had a charming little face, rather thin from illness, but full of gayety. There was a gleam of mischief in her big dark eyes with [pg 045] their long lashes. Her mother had been intending to take her abroad ever since the spring, but they had been detained all the summer by business connected with their estate. They had been staying a week in our town, where they had come more for purposes of business than devotion, but had visited Father Zossima once already, three days before. Though they knew that the elder scarcely saw any one, they had now suddenly turned up again, and urgently entreated “the happiness of looking once again on the great healer.”
The mother was sitting on a chair by the side of her daughter’s invalid carriage, and two paces from her stood an old monk, not one of our monastery, but a visitor from an obscure religious house in the far north. He too sought the elder’s blessing.
But Father Zossima, on entering the portico, went first straight to the peasants who were crowded at the foot of the three steps that led up into the portico. Father Zossima stood on the top step, put on his stole, and began blessing the women who thronged about him. One crazy woman was led up to him. As soon as she caught sight of the elder she began shrieking and writhing as though in the pains of childbirth. Laying the stole on her forehead, he read a short prayer over her, and she was at once soothed and quieted.
I do not know how it may be now, but in my childhood I often happened to see and hear these “possessed” women in the villages and monasteries. They used to be brought to mass; they would squeal and bark like a dog so that they were heard all over the church. But when the sacrament was carried in and they were led up to it, at once the “possession” ceased, and the sick women were always soothed for a time. I was greatly impressed and amazed at this as a child; but then I heard from country neighbors and from my town teachers that the whole illness was simulated to avoid work, and that it could always be cured by suitable severity; various anecdotes were told to confirm this. But later on I learnt with astonishment from medical specialists that there is no pretense about it, that it is a terrible illness to which women are subject, specially prevalent among us in Russia, and that it is due to the hard lot of the peasant women. It is a disease, I was told, arising from exhausting toil too soon after hard, abnormal and unassisted labor in childbirth, and from the hopeless misery, from beatings, and so on, which some women were not able to endure like others. The strange and [pg 046] instant healing of the frantic and struggling woman as soon as she was led up to the holy sacrament, which had been explained to me as due to malingering and the trickery of the “clericals,” arose probably in the most natural manner. Both the women who supported her and the invalid herself fully believed as a truth beyond question that the evil spirit in possession of her could not hold out if the sick woman were brought to the sacrament and made to bow down before it. And so, with a nervous and psychically deranged woman, a sort of convulsion of the whole organism always took place, and was bound to take place, at the moment of bowing down to the sacrament, aroused by the expectation of the miracle of healing and the implicit belief that it would come to pass; and it did come to pass, though only for a moment. It was exactly the same now as soon as the elder touched the sick woman with the stole.
Many of the women in the crowd were moved to tears of ecstasy by the effect of the moment: some strove to kiss the hem of his garment, others cried out in sing-song voices.
He blessed them all and talked with some of them. The “possessed” woman he knew already. She came from a village only six versts from the monastery, and had been brought to him before.
“But here is one from afar.” He pointed to a woman by no means old but very thin and wasted, with a face not merely sunburnt but almost blackened by exposure. She was kneeling and gazing with a fixed stare at the elder; there was something almost frenzied in her eyes.
“From afar off, Father, from afar off! From two hundred miles from here. From afar off, Father, from afar off!” the woman began in a sing-song voice as though she were chanting a dirge, swaying her head from side to side with her cheek resting in her hand.
There is silent and long-suffering sorrow to be met with among the peasantry. It withdraws into itself and is still. But there is a grief that breaks out, and from that minute it bursts into tears and finds vent in wailing. This is particularly common with women. But it is no lighter a grief than the silent. Lamentations comfort only by lacerating the heart still more. Such grief does not desire consolation. It feeds on the sense of its hopelessness. Lamentations spring only from the constant craving to reopen the wound.
[pg 047] “You are of the tradesman class?” said Father Zossima, looking curiously at her.
“Townfolk we are, Father, townfolk. Yet we are peasants though we live in the town. I have come to see you, O Father! We heard of you, Father, we heard of you. I have buried my little son, and I have come on a pilgrimage. I have been in three monasteries, but they told me, ‘Go, Nastasya, go to them’–that is to you. I have come; I was yesterday at the service, and to-day I have come to you.”
“What are you weeping for?”
“It’s my little son I’m grieving for, Father. He was three years old–three years all but three months. For my little boy, Father, I’m in anguish, for my little boy. He was the last one left. We had four, my Nikita and I, and now we’ve no children, our dear ones have all gone. I buried the first three without grieving overmuch, and now I have buried the last I can’t forget him. He seems always standing before me. He never leaves me. He has withered my heart. I look at his little clothes, his little shirt, his little boots, and I wail. I lay out all that is left of him, all his little things. I look at them and wail. I say to Nikita, my husband, ‘Let me go on a pilgrimage, master.’ He is a driver. We’re not poor people, Father, not poor; he drives our own horse. It’s all our own, the horse and the carriage. And what good is it all to us now? My Nikita has begun drinking while I am away. He’s sure to. It used to be so before. As soon as I turn my back he gives way to it. But now I don’t think about him. It’s three months since I left home. I’ve forgotten him. I’ve forgotten everything. I don’t want to remember. And what would our life be now together? I’ve done with him, I’ve done. I’ve done with them all. I don’t care to look upon my house and my goods. I don’t care to see anything at all!”
“Listen, mother,” said the elder. “Once in olden times a holy saint saw in the Temple a mother like you weeping for her little one, her only one, whom God had taken. ‘Knowest thou not,’ said the saint to her, ‘how bold these little ones are before the throne of God? Verily there are none bolder than they in the Kingdom of Heaven. “Thou didst give us life, O Lord,” they say, “and scarcely had we looked upon it when Thou didst take it back again.” And so boldly they ask and ask again that God gives them at once the [pg 048] rank of angels. Therefore,’ said the saint, ‘thou, too, O mother, rejoice and weep not, for thy little son is with the Lord in the fellowship of the angels.’ That’s what the saint said to the weeping mother of old. He was a great saint and he could not have spoken falsely. Therefore you too, mother, know that your little one is surely before the throne of God, is rejoicing and happy, and praying to God for you, and therefore weep not, but rejoice.”
The woman listened to him, looking down with her cheek in her hand. She sighed deeply.
“My Nikita tried to comfort me with the same words as you. ‘Foolish one,’ he said, ‘why weep? Our son is no doubt singing with the angels before God.’ He says that to me, but he weeps himself. I see that he cries like me. ‘I know, Nikita,’ said I. ‘Where could he be if not with the Lord God? Only, here with us now he is not as he used to sit beside us before.’ And if only I could look upon him one little time, if only I could peep at him one little time, without going up to him, without speaking, if I could be hidden in a corner and only see him for one little minute, hear him playing in the yard, calling in his little voice, ‘Mammy, where are you?’ If only I could hear him pattering with his little feet about the room just once, only once; for so often, so often I remember how he used to run to me and shout and laugh, if only I could hear his little feet I should know him! But he’s gone, Father, he’s gone, and I shall never hear him again. Here’s his little sash, but him I shall never see or hear now.”
She drew out of her bosom her boy’s little embroidered sash, and as soon as she looked at it she began shaking with sobs, hiding her eyes with her fingers through which the tears flowed in a sudden stream.
“It is Rachel of old,” said the elder, “weeping for her children, and will not be comforted because they are not. Such is the lot set on earth for you mothers. Be not comforted. Consolation is not what you need. Weep and be not consoled, but weep. Only every time that you weep be sure to remember that your little son is one of the angels of God, that he looks down from there at you and sees you, and rejoices at your tears, and points at them to the Lord God; and a long while yet will you keep that great mother’s grief. But it will turn in the end into quiet joy, and your bitter tears will be [pg 049] only tears of tender sorrow that purifies the heart and delivers it from sin. And I shall pray for the peace of your child’s soul. What was his name?”
“A sweet name. After Alexey, the man of God?”
“What a saint he was! I will remember him, mother, and your grief in my prayers, and I will pray for your husband’s health. It is a sin for you to leave him. Your little one will see from heaven that you have forsaken his father, and will weep over you. Why do you trouble his happiness? He is living, for the soul lives for ever, and though he is not in the house he is near you, unseen. How can he g