Twenty-three Tales/What Men Live By
|←The Bear-Hunt||What Men Live By (1881)
by , translated by Louise and Aylmer Maude
|A Spark Neglected Burns the House→|
|This translation first published in 1906.|
WHAT MEN LIVE BY
'We know that we have passed out of death into life, because we love the brethren. He that loveth not abideth in death.'—1 Epistle St. John iii. 14.
'Whoso hath the world’s goods, and beholdeth his brother in need, and shutteth up his compassion from him, how doth the love of God abide in him? My little children, let us not love in word, neither with the tongue; but in deed and truth.'—iii. 17-18.
'Love is of God; and every one that loveth is begotten of God, and knoweth God. He that loveth not knoweth not God; for God is love.'-iv. 7-8.
'No man hath beheld God at any time; if we love one another, God abideth in us.'—iv. 12.
'God is love; and he that abideth in love abideth in God, and God abideth in him.'—iv. 16.
'If a man say, I love God, and hateth his brother, he is a liar; for he that loveth not his brother whom he hath seen, how can he love God whom he hath not seen?'—iv. 20.
A shoemaker named Simon, who had neither house nor land of his own, lived with his wife and children in a peasant's hut, and earned his living by his work. Work was cheap, but bread was dear, and what he earned he spent for food. The man and his wife had but one sheepskin coat between them for winter wear, and even that was torn to tatters, and this was the second year he had been wanting to buy sheep-skins for a new coat. Before winter Simon saved up a little money: a three-rouble note lay hidden in his wife’s box, and five roubles and twenty kopeks were owed him by customers in the village.
So one morning he prepared to go to the village to buy the sheep-skins. He put on over his shirt his wife’s wadded nankeen jacket, and over that he put his own cloth coat. He took the three-rouble note in his pocket, cut himself a stick to serve as a staff, and started off after breakfast. “I’ll collect the five roubles that are due to me,” thought he, “add the three I have got, and that will be enough to buy sheep-skins for the winter coat.”
He came to the village and called at a peasant’s hut, but the man was not at home. The peasant’s wife promised that the money should be paid next week, but she would not pay it herself. Then Simon called on another peasant, but this one swore he had no money, and would only pay twenty kopeks which he owed for a pair of boots Simon had mended. Simon then tried to buy the sheep-skins on credit, but the dealer would not trust him.
“Bring your money,” said he, “then you may have your pick of the skins. We know what debt-collecting is like.” So all the business the shoemaker did was to get the twenty kopeks for boots he had mended, and to take a pair of felt boots a peasant gave him to sole with leather.
Simon felt downhearted. He spent the twenty kopeks on vodka, and started homewards without having bought any skins. In the morning he had felt the frost; but now, after drinking the vodka, he felt warm, even without a sheep-skin coat. He trudged along, striking his stick on the frozen earth with one hand, swinging the felt boots with the other, and talking to himself.
“I’m quite warm,” said he, “though I have no sheep-skin coat. I’ve had a drop, and it runs through all my veins. I need no sheep-skins. I go along and don’t worry about anything. That’s the sort of man I am! What do I care? I can live without sheep-skins. I don’t need them. My wife will fret, to be sure. And, true enough, it is a shame; one works all day long, and then does not get paid. Stop a bit! If you don’t bring that money along, sure enough I’ll skin you, blessed if I don’t. How’s that? He pays twenty kopeks at a time! What can I do with twenty kopeks? Drink it—that’s all one can do! Hard up, he says he is! So he may be—but what about me? You have a house, and cattle, and everything; I’ve only what I stand up in! You have corn of your own growing; I have to buy every grain. Do what I will, I must spend three roubles every week for bread alone. I come home and find the bread all used up, and I have to fork out another rouble and a half. So just pay up what you owe, and no nonsense about it!”
By this time he had nearly reached the shrine at the bend of the road. Looking up, he saw something whitish behind the shrine. The daylight was fading, and the shoemaker peered at the thing without being able to make out what it was. “There was no white stone here before. Can it be an ox? It’s not like an ox. It has a head like a man, but it’s too white; and what could a man be doing there?”
He came closer, so that it was clearly visible. To his surprise it really was a man, alive or dead, sitting naked, leaning motionless against the shrine. Terror seized the shoemaker, and he thought, “Some one has killed him, stripped him, and left him there. If I meddle I shall surely get into trouble.”
So the shoemaker went on. He passed in front of the shrine so that he could not see the man. When he had gone some way, he looked back, and saw that the man was no longer leaning against the shrine, but was moving as if looking towards him. The shoemaker felt more frightened than before, and thought, 'Shall I go back to him, or shall I go on? If I go near him something dreadful may happen. Who knows who the fellow is? He has not come here for any good. If I go near him he may jump up and throttle me, and there will be no getting away. Or if not, he’d still be a burden on one’s hands. What could I do with a naked man? I couldn’t give him my last clothes. Heaven only help me to get away!”
So the shoemaker hurried on, leaving the shrine behind himwhen suddenly his conscience smote him, and he stopped in the road.
“What are you doing, Simon?” said he to himself. “The man may be dying of want, and you slip past afraid. Have you grown so rich as to be afraid of robbers? Ah, Simon, shame on you!”
So he turned back and went up to the man.
Simon approached the stranger, looked at him, and saw that he was a young man, fit, with no bruises on his body, only evidently freezing and frightened, and he sat there leaning back without looking up at Simon, as if too faint to lift his eyes. Simon went close to him, and then the man seemed to wake up. Turning his head, he opened his eyes and looked into Simon’s face. That one look was enough to make Simon fond of the man. He threw the felt boots on the ground, undid his sash, laid it on the boots, and took off his cloth coat.
“It’s not a time for talking,” said he. “Come, put this coat on at once!” And Simon took the man by the elbows and helped him to rise. As he stood there, Simon saw that his body was clean and in good condition, his hands and feet shapely, and his face good and kind. He threw his coat over the man’s shoulders, but the latter could not find the sleeves. Simon guided his arms into them, and drawing the coat well on, wrapped it closely about him, tying the sash round the man’s waist.
Simon even took off his torn cap to put it on the man’s head, but then his own head felt cold, and he thought: “I’m quite bald, while he has long curly hair.” So he put his cap on his own head again. “It will be better to give him something for his feet,” thought he; and he made the man sit down, and helped him to put on the felt boots, saying, “There, friend, now move about and warm yourself. Other matters can be settled later on. Can you walk?”
The man stood up and looked kindly at Simon, but could not say a word.
“Why don’t you speak?” said Simon. “It’s too cold to stay here, we must be getting home. There now, take my stick, and if you’re feeling weak, lean on that. Now step out!”
The man started walking, and moved easily, not lagging behind.
As they went along, Simon asked him, “And where do you belong to?” “I’m not from these parts.”
“I thought as much. I know the folks hereabouts. But, how did you come to be there by the shrine ?”
“I cannot tell.”
“Has some one been ill-treating you?”
“No one has ill-treated me. God has punished me.”
“Of course God rules all. Still, you’ll have to find food and shelter somewhere. Where do you want to go to?”
“It is all the same to me.”
Simon was amazed. The man did not look like a rogue, and he spoke gently, but yet he gave no account of himself. Still Simon thought, “Who knows what may have happened?” And he said to the stranger: “Well then, come home with me, and at least warm yourself awhile.”
So Simon walked towards his home, and the stranger kept up with him, walking at his side. The wind had risen and Simon felt it cold under his shirt. He was getting over his tipsiness by now, and began to feel the frost. He went along sniffling and wrapping his wife’s coat round him, and he thought to himself: “There now—talk about sheep-skins! I went out for sheep-skins and come home without even a coat to my back, and what is more, I’m bringing a naked man along with me. Matryona won’t be pleased!” And when he thought of his wife he felt sad; but when he looked at the stranger and remembered how he had looked up at him at the shrine, his heart was glad.
Simon’s wife had everything ready early that day. She had cut wood, brought water, fed the children, eaten her own meal, and now she sat thinking. She wondered when she ought to make bread: now or tomorrow? There was still a large piece left.
“If Simon has had some dinner in town,” thought she, “and does not eat much for supper, the bread will last out another day.”
She weighed the piece of bread in her hand again and again, and thought: “I won’t make any more today. We have only enough flour left to bake one batch; We can manage to make this last out till Friday.”
So Matryona put away the bread, and sat down at the table to patch her husband’s shirt. While she worked she thought how her husband was buying skins for a winter coat.
“If only the dealer does not cheat him. My good man is much too simple; he cheats nobody, but any child can take him in. Eight roubles is a lot of money—he should get a good coat at that price. Not tanned skins, but still a proper winter coat. How difficult it was last winter to get on without a warm coat. I could neither get down to the river, nor go out anywhere. When he went out he put on all we had, and there was nothing left for me. He did not start very early today, but still it’s time he was back. I only hope he has not gone on the spree!”
Hardly had Matryona thought this, when steps were heard on the threshold, and some one entered. Matryona stuck her needle into her work and went out into the passage. There she saw two men: Simon, and with him a man without a hat, and wearing felt boots.
Matryona noticed at once that her husband smelt of spirits. “There now, he has been drinking,” thought she. And when she saw that he was coatless, had only her jacket on, brought no parcel, stood there silent, and seemed ashamed, her heart was ready to break with disappointment. “He has drunk the money,” thought she, “and has been on the spree with some good-for-nothing fellow whom he has brought home with him.”
Matryona let them pass into the hut, followed them in, and saw that the stranger was a young, slight man, wearing her husband’s coat. There was no shirt to be seen under it, and he had no hat. Having entered, he stood, neither moving, nor raising his eyes, and Matryona thought: “He must be a bad man—he’s afraid.”
Matryona frowned, and stood beside the oven looking to see what they would do.
Simon took off his cap and sat down on the bench as if things were all right.
“Come, Matryona; if supper is ready, let us have some.”
Matryona muttered something to herself and did not move, but stayed where she was, by the oven. She looked first at the one and then at the other of them, and only shook her head. Simon saw that his wife was annoyed, but tried to pass it off. Pretending not to notice anything, he took the stranger by the arm.
“Sit down, friend,” said he, “and let us have some supper.”
The stranger sat down on the bench.
“Haven’t you cooked anything for us?” said Simon.
Matryona’s anger boiled over. “I’ve cooked, but not for you. It seems to me you have drunk your wits away. You went to buy a sheep-skin coat, but come home without so much as the coat you had on, and bring a naked vagabond home with you. I have no supper for drunkards like you.”
“That’s enough, Matryona. Don’t wag your tongue without reason. You had better ask what sort of man——”
“And you tell me what you’ve done with the money?”
Simon found the pocket of the jacket, drew out the three-rouble note, and unfolded it.
“Here is the money. Trifonof did not pay, but promises to pay soon.”
Matryona got still more angry; he had bought no sheep-skins, but had put his only coat on some naked fellow and had even brought him to their house.
She snatched up the note from the table, took it to put away in safety, and said: “I have no supper for you. We can’t feed all the naked drunkards in the world.”
“There now, Matryona, hold your tongue a bit. First hear what a man has to say-”
“Much wisdom I shall hear from a drunken fool. I was right in not wanting to marry you-a drunkard. The linen my mother gave me you drank; and now you’ve been to buy a coat-and have drunk it, too!”
Simon tried to explain to his wife that he had only spent twenty kopeks; tried to tell how he had found the man—but Matryona would not let him get a word in. She talked nineteen to the dozen, and dragged in things that had happened ten years before.
Matryona talked and talked, and at last she flew at Simon and seized him by the sleeve.
“Give me my jacket. It is the only one I have, and you must needs take it from me and wear it yourself. Give it here, you mangy dog, and may the devil take you.”
Simon began to pull off the jacket, and turned a sleeve of it inside out; Matryona seized the jacket and it burst its seams, She snatched it up, threw it over her head and went to the door. She meant to go out, but stopped undecided—she wanted to work off her anger, but she also wanted to learn what sort of a man the stranger was.
Matryona stopped and said: “If he were a good man he would not be naked. Why, he hasn’t even a shirt on him. If he were all right, you would say where you came across the fellow.”
“That’s just what I am trying to tell you,” said Simon. “As I came to the shrine I saw him sitting all naked and frozen. It isn’t quite the weather to sit about naked! God sent me to him, or he would have perished. What was I to do? How do we know what may have happened to him? So I took him, clothed him, and brought him along. Don’t be so angry, Matryona. It is a sin. Remember, we all must die one day.”
Angry words rose to Matryona’s lips, but she looked at the stranger and was silent. He sat on the edge of the bench, motionless, his hands folded on his knees, his head drooping on his breast, his eyes closed, and his brows knit as if in pain. Matryona was silent: and Simon said: “Matryona, have you no love of God?”
Matryona heard these words, and as she looked at the stranger, suddenly her heart softened towards him. She came back from the door, and going to the oven she got out the supper. Setting a cup on the table, she poured out some kvas. Then she brought out the last piece of bread, and set out a knife and spoons.
“Eat, if you want to,” said she.
Simon drew the stranger to the table.
“Take your place, young man,” said he.
Simon cut the bread, crumbled it into the broth, and they began to eat. Matryona sat at the corner of the table resting her head on her hand and looking at the stranger.
And Matryona was touched with pity for the stranger, and began to feel fond of him. And at once the stranger's face lit up; his brows were no longer bent, he raised his eyes and smiled at Matryona.
When they had finished supper, the woman cleared away the things and began questioning the stranger. “Where are you from?” said she.
“I am not from these parts.”
“But how did you come to be on the road?”
“I may not tell.”
“Did some one rob you?”
“God punished me.”
“And you were lying there naked?”
“Yes, naked and freezing. Simon saw me and had pity on me. He took off his coat, put it on me and brought me here. And you have fed me, given me drink, and shown pity on me. God will reward you!”
Matryona rose, took from the window Simon’s old shirt she had been patching, and gave it to the stranger. She also brought out a pair of trousers for him.
“There,” said she, “I see you have no shirt. Put this on, and lie down where you please, in the loft or on the oven.”
The stranger took off the coat, put on the shirt, and lay down in the loft. Matryona put out the candle, took the coat, and climbed to where her husband lay.
Matryona drew the skirts of the coat over her and lay down, but could not sleep; she could not get the stranger out of her mind.
When she remembered that he had eaten their last piece of bread and that there was none for tomorrow, and thought of the shirt and trousers she had given away, she felt grieved; but when she remembered how he had smiled, her heart was glad.
Long did Matryona lie awake, and she noticed that Simon also was awake—he drew the coat towards him.
'You have had the last of the bread, and I have not put any to rise. I don’t know what we shall do tomorrow. Perhaps I can borrow some of neighbor Martha.'
'If we’re alive we shall find something to eat.'
The woman lay still awhile, and then said, “He seems a good man, but why does he not tell us who he is?'
'I suppose he has his reasons.'
'We give; but why does nobody give us anything?'
Simon did not know what to say; so he only said, 'Let us stop talking,' and turned over and went to sleep.
In the morning Simon awoke. The children were still asleep; his wife had gone to the neighbor’s to borrow some bread. The stranger alone was sitting on the bench, dressed in the old shirt and trousers, and looking upwards. His face was brighter than it had been the day before.
Simon said to him, 'Well, friend; the belly wants bread, and the naked body clothes. One has to work for a living. What work do you know?'
'I do not know any.'
This surprised Simon, but he said, 'Men who want to learn can learn anything.'
'Men work, and I will work also.'
'What is your name?'
'Well, Michael, if you don’t wish to talk about yourself, that is your own affair; but you’ll have to earn a living for yourself. If you will work as I tell you, I will give you food and shelter.'
'May God reward you! I will learn. Show me what to do.'
Simon took yarn, put it round his thumb and began to twist it.
'It is easy enough—see!'
Michael watched him, put some yarn round his own thumb in the same way, caught the knack, and twisted the yarn also.
Then Simon showed him how to wax the thread. This also Michael mastered. Next Simon showed him how to twist the bristle in, and how to sew, and this, too, Michael learned at once.
Whatever Simon showed him he understood at once, and after three days he worked as if he had sewn boots all his life. He worked without stopping, and ate little. When work was over he sat silently, looking upwards. He hardly went into the street, spoke only when necessary, and neither joked nor laughed. They never saw him smile, except that first evening when Matryona gave them supper.
Day by day and week by week the year went round. Michael lived and worked with Simon. His fame spread till people said that no one sewed boots so neatly and strongly as Simon’s workman, Michael; and from all the district round people came to Simon for their boots, and he began to be well off.
One winter day, as Simon and Michael sat working, a carriage on sledge-runners, with three horses and with bells, drove up to the hut. They looked out of the window; the carriage stopped at their door, a fine servant jumped down from the box and opened the door. A gentleman in a fur coat got out and walked up to Simon’s hut. Up jumped Matryona and opened the door wide. The gentleman stooped to enter the hut, and when he drew himself up again his head nearly reached the ceiling, and he seemed quite to fill his end of the room.
Simon rose, bowed, and looked at the gentleman with astonishment. He had never seen any one like him. Simon himself was lean, Michael was thin, and Matryona was dry as a bone, but this man was like some one from another world: red-faced, burly, with a neck like a bull's, and looking altogether as if he were cast in iron.
The gentleman puffed, threw off his fur coat, sat down on the bench, and said, 'Which of you is the master bootmaker?'
'I am, your Excellency,' said Simon, coming forward.
Then the gentleman shouted to his lad, 'Hey, Fedka, bring the leather!'
The servant ran in, bringing a parcel. The gentleman took the parcel and put it on the table.
'Untie it,' said he. The lad untied it.
The gentleman pointed to the leather.
'Look here, shoemaker,' said he, 'do you see this leather?'
'Yes, your honor.'
'But do you know what sort of leather it is?'
Simon felt the leather and said, 'It is good leather.'
'Good, indeed! Why, you fool, you never saw such leather before in your life. It’s German, and cost twenty roubles.'
Simon was frightened, and said, 'Where should I ever see leather like that?'
'Just so! Now, can you make it into boots for me?'
'Yes, your Excellency, I can.'
Then the gentleman shouted at him: 'You can, can you? Well, remember whom you are to make them for, and what the leather is. You must make me boots that will wear for a year, neither losing shape nor coming unsown. If you can do it, take the leather and cut it up; but if you can't, say so. I warn you now if your boots become unsewn or lose shape within a year, I will have you put in prison. If they don't burst or lose shape for a year I will pay you ten roubles for your work.'
Simon was frightened, and did not know what to' say. He glanced at Michael and nudging him with his elbow, whispered: 'Shall I take the work?'
Michael nodded his head as if to say, 'Yes, take it.'
Simon did as Michael advised, and undertook to make boots that would not lose shape or split for a whole year.
Calling his servant, the gentleman told him to pull the boot off his left leg, which he stretched out.
'Take my measure!' said he.
Simon stitched a paper measure seventeen inches long, smoothed it out, knelt down, wiped his hand well on his apron so as not to soil the gentleman’s sock, and began to measure. He measured the sole, and round the instep, and began to measure the calf of the leg, but the paper was too short. The calf of the leg was as thick as a beam.
'Mind you don't make it too tight in the leg.'
Simon stitched on another strip of paper. The gentleman twitched his toes about in his sock, looking round at those in the hut, and as he did so he noticed Michael.
'Whom have you there?' asked he.
'That is my workman. He will sew the boots.'
'Mind,' said the gentleman to Michael, 'remember to make them so that they will last me a year.'
Simon also looked at Michael, and saw that Michael was not looking at the gentleman, but was gazing into the corner behind the gentleman, as if he saw some one there. Michael looked and looked, and suddenly he smiled, and his face became brighter.
'What are you grinning at, you fool?' thundered the gentleman. 'You had better look to it that the boots are ready in time.'
'They shall be ready in good time,' said Michael.
'Mind it is so,' said the gentleman, and he put on his boots and his fur coat, wrapped the latter round him, and went to the door. But he forgot to stoop, and struck his head against the lintel.
He swore and rubbed his head. Then he took his seat in the carriage and drove away.
When he had gone, Simon said: 'There's a figure of a man for you! You could not kill him with a mallet. He almost knocked out the lintel, but little harm it did him.'
And Matryona said: 'Living as he does, how should he not grow strong? Death itself can’t touch such a rock as that.'
Then Simon said to Michael: 'Well, we have taken the work, but we must see we don't get into trouble over it. The leather is dear, and the gentleman hot-tempered. We must make no mistakes. Come, your eye is truer and your hands have become nimbler than mine, so you take this measure and cut out the boots. I will finish off the sewing of the vamps.'
Michael did as he was told. He took the leather, spread it out on the table, folded it in two, took a knife and began to cut out.
Matryona came and watched him cutting, and was surprised to see how he was doing it. Matryona was accustomed to seeing boots made, and she looked and saw that Michael was not cutting the leather for boots, but was cutting it round.
She wished to say something, but she thought to herself: 'Perhaps I do not understand how gentleman's boots should be made. I suppose Michael knows more about it—and I won’t interfere.'
When Michael had cut up the leather, he took a thread and began to sew not with two ends, as boots are sewn, but with a single end, as for soft slippers.
Again Matryona wondered, but again she did not interfere. Michael sewed on steadily till noon. Then Simon rose for dinner, looked around, and saw that Michael had made slippers out of the gentleman's leather.
'Ah,' groaned Simon, and he thought, 'How is it that Michael, who has been with me a whole year and never made a mistake before, should do such a dreadful thing? The gentleman ordered high boots, welted, with whole fronts, and Michael has made soft slippers with single soles, and has wasted the leather. What am I to say to the gentleman? I can never replace leather such as this.'
And he said to Michael, 'What are you doing, friend? You have ruined me! You know the gentleman ordered high boots, but see what you have made!'
Hardly had he begun to rebuke Michael, when 'rat-tat' went the iron ring that hung at the door. Some one was knocking. They looked out of the window; a man had come on horseback, and was fastening his horse. They opened the door, and the servant who had been with the gentleman came in.
'Good day,' said he.
'Good day,' replied Simon. 'What can we do for you?'
'My mistress has sent me about the boots.'
'What about the boots?'
'Why, my master no longer needs them. He is dead.'
'Is it possible?'
'He did not live to get home after leaving you, but died in the carriage. When we reached home and the servants came to help him alight, he rolled over like a sack. He was dead already, and so stiff that he could hardly be got out of the carriage. My mistress sent me here, saying: "Tell the bootmaker that the gentleman who ordered boots of him and left the leather for them no longer needs the boots, but that he must quickly make soft slippers for the corpse. Wait till they are ready, and bring them back with you." That is why I have come.'
Michael gathered up the remnants of the leather; rolled them up, took the soft slippers he had made, slapped them together, wiped them down with his apron, and handed them and the roll of leather to the servant, who took them and said: 'Good-bye, masters, and good day to you!'
Another year passed, and another, and Michael was now living his sixth year with Simon. He lived as before. He went nowhere, only spoke when necessary,and had only smiled twice in all those years—once when Matryona gave him food, and a second time when the gentleman was in their hut. Simon was more than pleased with his workman. He never now asked him where he came from, and only feared lest Michael should go away.
They were all at home one day. Matryona was putting iron pots in the oven; the children were running along the benches and looking out of the window; Simon was sewing at one window, and Michael was fastening on a heel at the other.
One of the boys ran along the bench to Michael, leant on his shoulder, and looked out of the window.
'Look, Uncle Michael! There is a lady with little girls! She seems to be coming here. And one of the girls is lame.'
When the boy said that, Michael dropped his work, turned to the window, and looked out into the street.
Simon was surprised. Michael never used to look out into the street, but now he pressed against the window, staring at something. Simon also looked out, and saw that a well-dressed woman was really coming to his hut, leading by the hand two little girls in fur coats and woolen shawls. The girls could hardly be told one from the other, except that one of them was crippled in her left leg and walked with a limp.
The woman stepped into the porch and entered the passage. Feeling about for the entrance she found the latch, which she lifted, and opened the door. She let the two girls go in first, and followed them into the hut.
'Good day, good folk!'
'Pray come in,' said Simon. 'What can we do for you?'
The woman sat down by the table. The two little girls pressed close to her knees, afraid of the people in the hut.
'I want leather shoes made for these two little girls for spring.'
'We can do that. We never have made such small shoes, but we can make them; either welted or turnover shoes, linen lined. My man, Michael, is a master at the work.'
Simon glanced at Michael and saw that he had left his work and was sitting with his eyes fixed on the little girls. Simon was surprised. It was true the girls were pretty, with black eyes, plump, and rosy-cheeked, and they wore nice kerchiefs and fur coats, but still Simon could not understand why Michael should look at them like that—just as if he had known them before. He was puzzled, but went on talking with the woman, and arranging the price. Having fixed it, he prepared the measure. The woman lifted the lame girl on to her lap and said: 'Take two measures from this little girl. Make one shoe for the lame foot and three for the sound one. They both have the same size feet. They are twins.'
Simon took the measure and, speaking of the lame girl, said: 'How did it happen to her? She is such a pretty girl. Was she born so?'
'No, her mother crushed her leg.'
Then Matryona joined in. She wondered who this woman was, and whose the children were, so she said: 'Are not you their mother then?'
'No, my good woman; I am neither their mother nor any relation to them. They were quite strangers to me, but I adopted them.'
'They are not your children and yet you are so fond of them?'
'How can I help being fond of them? I fed them both at my own breasts. I had a child of my own, but God took him. I was not so fond of him as I now am of them.'
'Then whose children are they?'
The woman, having begun talking, told them the whole story.
'It is about six years since their parents died, both in one week: their father was buried on the Tuesday, and their mother died on the Friday. These orphans were born three days after their father’s death, and their mother did not live another day. My husband and I were then living as peasants in the village. We were neighbors of theirs, our yard being next to theirs. Their father was a lonely man; a wood-cutter in the forest. When felling trees one day, they let one fall on him. It fell across his body and crushed his bowels out. They hardly got him home before his soul went to God; and that same week his wife gave birth to twins—these little girls. She was poor and alone; she had no one, young or old, with her. Alone she gave them birth, and alone she met her death.'
'The next morning I went to see her, but when I entered the hut, she, poor thing, was already stark and cold. In dying she had rolled on to this child and crushed her leg. The village folk came to the hut, washed the body, laid her out, made a coffin, and buried her. They were good folk. The babies were left alone. What was to be done with them? I was the only woman there who had a baby at the time. I was nursing my first-born—eight weeks old. So I took them for a time. The peasants came together, and thought and thought what to do with them; and at last they said to me: "For the present, Mary, you had better keep the girls, and later on we will arrange what to do for them." So I nursed the sound one at my breast, but at first I did not feed this crippled one. I did not suppose she would live. But then I thought to myself, why should the poor innocent suffer? I pitied her, and began to feed her. And so I fed my own boy and these two—the three of them—at my own breast. I was young and strong, and had good food, and God gave me so much milk that at times it even overflowed. I used sometimes to feed two at a time, while the third was waiting. When one had enough I nursed the third. And God so ordered it that these grew up, while my own was buried before he was two years old. And I had no more children, though we prospered. Now my husband is working for the corn merchant at the mill. The pay is good, and we are well off. But I have no children of my own, and how lonely I should be without these little girls! How can I help loving them! They are the joy of my life!'
She pressed the lame little girl to her with one hand, while with the other she wiped the tears from her cheeks.
And Matryona sighed, and said: 'The proverb is true that says, "One may live without father or mother, but one cannot live without God."'
So they talked together, when suddenly the whole hut was lighted up as though by summer lightning from the corner where Michael sat. They all looked towards him and saw him sitting, his hands folded on his knees, gazing upwards and smiling.
The woman went away with the girls. Michael rose from the bench, put down his work, and took off his apron. Then, bowing low to Simon and his wife, he said: 'Farewell, masters. God has forgiven me. I ask your forgiveness, too, for anything done amiss.'
And they saw that a light shone from Michael. And Simon rose, bowed down to Michael, and said: 'I see, Michael, that you are no common man, and I can neither keep you nor question you. Only tell me this: how is it that when I found you and brought you home, you were gloomy, and when my wife gave you food you smiled at her and became brighter? Then when the gentleman came to order the boots, you smiled again and became brighter still? And now, when this woman brought the little girls, you smiled a third time, and have become as bright as day? Tell me, Michael, why does your face shine so, and why did you smile those three times?'
And Michael answered: 'Light shines from me because I have been punished, but now God has pardoned me. And I smiled three times, because God sent me to learn three truths, and I have learnt them. One I learnt when your wife pitied me, and that is why I smiled the first time. The second I learnt when the rich man ordered the boots, and then I smiled again. And now, when I saw those little girls, I learn the third and last truth, and I smiled the third time.'
And Simon said, 'Tell me, Michael, what did God punish you for? and what were the three truths? that I, too, may know them.'
And Michael answered: 'God punished me for disobeying Him. I was an angel in heaven and disobeyed God. God sent me to fetch a woman’s soul. I flew to earth, and saw a sick woman lying alone, who had just given birth to twin girls. They moved feebly at their mother’s side, but she could not lift them to her breast. When she saw me, she understood that God had sent me for her soul, and she wept and said: "Angel of God! My husband has just been buried, killed by a falling tree. I have neither sister, nor aunt, nor mother: no one to care for my orphans. Do not take my soul! Let me nurse my babes, feed them, and set them on their feet before I die. Children cannot live without father or mother." And I hearkened to her. I placed one child at her breast and gave the other into her arms, and returned to the Lord in heaven. I flew to the Lord, and said: "I could not take the soul of the mother. Her husband was killed by a tree; the woman has twins, and prays that her soul may not be taken. She says: 'Let me nurse and feed my children, and set them on their feet. Children cannot live without father or mother.' I have not taken her soul." And God said: "Go-take the mother’s soul, and learn three truths: Learn What dwells in man, What is not given to man, and What men live by. When thou hast learnt these things, thou shalt return to heaven." So I flew again to earth and took the mother's soul. The babes dropped from her breasts. Her body rolled over on the bed and crushed one babe, twisting its leg. I rose above the village, wishing to take her soul to God; but a wind seized me, and my wings drooped and dropped off. Her soul rose alone to God, while I fell to earth by the roadside.'
And Simon and Matryóna understood who it was that had lived with them, and whom they had clothed and fed. And they wept with awe and with joy. And the angel said: 'I was alone in the field, naked. I had never known human needs, cold and hunger, till I became a man. I was famished, frozen, and did not know what to do. I saw, near the field I was in, a shrine built for God, and I went to it hoping to find shelter. But the shrine was locked, and I could not enter. So I sat down behind the shrine to shelter myself at least from the wind. Evening drew on. I was hungry, frozen, and in pain. Suddenly I heard a man coming along the road. He carried a pair of boots, and was talking to himself. For the first time since I became a man I saw the mortal face of a man, and his face seemed terrible to me and I turned from it. And I heard the man talking to himself of how to cover his body from the cold in winter, and how to feed wife and children. And I thought: "I am perishing of cold and hunger, and here is a man thinking only of how to clothe himself and his wife, and how to get bread for themselves. He cannot help me. When the man saw me he frowned and became still more terrible, and passed me by on the other side. I despaired, but suddenly I heard him coming back. I looked up, and did not recognize the same man: before, I had seen death in his face; but now he was alive, and I recognized in him the presence of God.
He came up to me, clothed me, took me with him and brought me to his home. I entered the house a woman came to meet us and began to speak. The woman was still more terrible than the man had been; the spirit of death came from her mouth; I could not breathe for the stench of death that spread around her. She wished to drive me out into the cold, and I knew that if she did so she would die. Suddenly her husband spoke to her of God, and the woman changed at once. And when she brought me food and looked at me, I glanced at her and saw that death no longer dwelt in her; she had become alive, and in her too I saw God.
'Then I remembered the first lesson God had set me: "Learn what dwells in man." And I understood that in man dwells Love! I was glad that God had already begun to show me what He had promised, and I smiled for the first time. But I had not yet learnt all. I did not yet know What is not given to man, and What men live by.
'I lived with you, and a year passed. A man came to order boots that should wear for a year without losing shape or cracking. I looked at him, and suddenly, behind his shoulder, I saw my comrade—the angel of death. None but me saw that angel; but I knew him, and knew that before the sun set he would take that rich man's soul. And I thought to myself, "The man is making preparations for a year, and does not know that he will die before evening." And I remembered God's second saying, "Learn what is not given to man."
'What dwells in man I already knew. Now I learnt what is not given him. It is not given to man to know his own needs. And I smiled for the second time. I was glad to have seen my comrade angel—glad also that God had revealed to me the second saying.
'But I still did not know all. I did not know What men live by. And I lived on, waiting till God should reveal to me the last lesson. In the sixth year came came the girl-twins with the woman; and I recognized the girls, and heard how they had been kept alive. Having heard the story, I thought, "Their mother besought me for the children’s sake, and I believed her when she said that children cannot live without father or mother; but a stranger has nursed them, and has brought them up." And when the woman showed her love for the children that were not her own, and wept over them, I saw in her the living God and understood What men live by. And I knew that God had revealed to me the last lesson, and had forgiven my sin. And then I smiled for the third time.”
And the angel’s body was bared, and he was clothed in light so that eye could not look on him; and his voice grew louder, as though it came not from him but from heaven above. And the angel said:
'I have learnt that all men live not by care for themselves but by love.
'It was not given to the mother to know what her children needed for their life. Nor was it given to the rich man to know what he himself needed. Nor is it given to any man to know whether, when evening comes, he will need boots for his body or slippers for his corpse.
'I remained alive when I was a man, not by care of myself, but because love was present in a passer-by, and because he and his wife pitied and loved me. The orphans remained alive not because of their mother’s care, but because there was love in the heart of a woman, a stranger to them, who pitied and loved them. And all men live not by the thought they spend on their own welfare, but because love exists in man.
'I knew before that God gave life to men and desires that they should live; now I understood more than that.
'I understood that God does not wish men to live apart, and therefore he does not reveal to them what each one needs for himself; but he wishes them to live united, and therefore reveals to each of them what is necessary for all.
“I have now understood that though it seems to men that they live by care for themselves, in truth it is love alone by which they live. He who has love, is in God, and God is in him, for God is love.”
And the angel sang praise to God, so that the hut trembled at his voice. The roof opened, and a column of fire rose from earth to heaven. Simon and his wife and children fell to the ground. Wings appeared upon the angel’s shoulders, and he rose into the heavens.
And when Simon came to himself the hut stood as before, and there was no one in it but his own family.
- One hundred koreks make a rouble. The kopek is worth about a farthing.
- A non-intoxicating drink usually made from rye-malt and rye-flour.
- The brick oven in a Russian peasant's hut is usually built so as to leave a flat top, large enough to lie on, for those who want to sleep in a warm place.
|This is a translation and has a separate copyright status from the original text. The license for the translation applies to this edition only.|