The Kiss and Other Stories/The Mass for the Dead

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THE MASS FOR THE DEAD

AT the church of the Odigitrieff Virgin in Verchniye Zaprudni village the service had just ended. The worshippers moved from their places and left the church; and soon no one remained save the shopkeeper, Andrei Andreitch, one of the oldest residents, and a member of the local “Intelligentsia.” Andrei Andreitch leaned on his elbow on the rail of the choir and waited. On his face, well shaven, fat, and marked with traces of old pimples, were two inimical expressions: resignation to inscrutable destiny, and unlimited, dull contempt for his fellow-worshippers in their cheap overcoats and gaudy handkerchiefs. As it was Sunday, he was dressed in his best. He wore a cloth overcoat with yellow bone buttons, blue trousers outside his top-boots,and solid goloshes, such big, awkward goloshes as are worn only by people positive, deliberate, and convinced in their faith.

His greasy, idle eyes were bent on the iconostasis. Familiar to him were the lengthy faces of the saints, the watchman Matvei, who puffed out his cheeks and blew out the candles, the tarnished candelabra, the threadbare carpet, the clerk Lopukhoff, who ran anxiously from the altar carrying the host to the sexton. All these things he had seen long ago, and again and again, as often as his five fingers. But one thing was unfamiliar. At the north door stood Father Grigori, still in priestly vestments, and angrily twitching his bushy eyebrows.

“What is he frowning at, God be with him?” thought the shopkeeper. “Yes, and he shakes his hand! And stamps his foot! Tell me what that means, please. What does it all mean, Heavenly Mother? Whom is he glaring at?”

Andrei Andreitch looked around, and saw that the church was already deserted. At the door thronged a dozen men, but their backs were turned to the altar.

“Come at once when you are called! Why do you stand there, looking like a statue?” came Father Grigori's angry voice. “I am calling you!

The shopkeeper looked at Father Grigori's red, wrathful face, and for the first time realised that the frowning eyebrows and twitching fingers were directed at himself. He started, walked away from the choir, and resolutely, in his creaking goloshes, went up to the altar.

“Andrei Andreitch, was it you who handed this in during oblation, for the repose of Marya?” asked the priest, looking furiously at the shopkeeper's fat, perspiring face.

“Yes.”

“So . . . and that means that you wrote it too? You?”

And Father Grigori wrathfully pushed a slip of paper under the shopkeeper's eyes. On this paper, given in by Andrei Andreitch during oblation, in a big, wandering hand, was written —

“Pray for the soul of God's slave, the Adulteress Marya.”

“Exactly; I wrote it . . .” answered the shopkeeper.

“How dare you write such a thing?” whispered the priest slowly, and his hoarse whisper expressed indignation and horror.

The shopkeeper looked at him with dull amazement and doubt, and felt frightened; from the day of his birth. Father Grigori had never spoken so angrily to a member of the Verchniye Zaprudni “Intelligentsia.” For a moment the two men faced each other in silence. The tradesman's surprise was so great that his fat face seemed to melt on all sides, as wet dough.

“How dare you?” repeated the priest.

“I don't understand,” said Andrei Andreitch doubtfully.

“So you don't understand,” whispered Father Grigori, receding in amazement, and flourishing his arms. "What have you got on your shoulders? A head, is it, or some other object? You hand a paper across the altar with a word which even in the street is regarded as improper! Why do you stick out your eyes? Is it possible you do not know the meaning of this word?"

"This, I suppose, is all about the word ‘adulteress,'" stammered the shopkeeper, reddening and blinking his eyes. “I see nothing wrong. Our Lord, in His mercy, this same thing . . . forgave an adulteress . . . prepared a place for her; yes, and the life of the blessed Mary of Egypt shows in what sense this word, excuse . . ."

The shopkeeper was about to adduce some other defence, but he lost the thread, and rubbed his lips with his cuff.

"So that's how you understand it!" The priest again flourished his hand impatiently. "You forget that our Lord forgave her — understand that — but you condemn her, you call her an improper name! And who is it? Your own daughter! Not merely in the sacred Scriptures, even in the profane, you will never read of such an act! I repeat to you, Andrei, don't try to be clever! Don't play the philosopher, brother! If God gave you a speculative head, and you don't know how to manage it, then better not speculate. . . . Don't try and be too clever — be silent!"

“Yes, but, you know, she . . . excuse my using the word, she was an actress,” protested the shopkeeper.

“An actress! No matter what her career, it is your duty, once she's dead, to forget it, and not to write it on paper!”

“I understand . . .” consented the shopkeeper.

“You should be forced to do penance,” growled the deacon from behind the altar, looking derisively at Andrei Andreitch's guilty face. “Then you'd soon drop your clever words. Your daughter was a well-known actress. Even in the newspapers they mentioned her death. . . . Philosopher!”

“I understand, of course . . . really,” stammered the shopkeeper. “It was an unsuitable word, but I used it not in condemnation, Father Grigori; I wished to express myself scripturally . . . in short, to make you understand who it was you were to pray for. People always hand in some description, for instance: the infant John, the drowned woman Pelageya, the soldier Yegor, murdered Paul, and so on. . . . That is all I wanted.”

“You are wrong, Andrei! God will forgive you, but take care the next time! And the chief thing is this; don't be too clever, and think like others. Abase yourself ten times and begone!”

“Yes,” said the shopkeeper, rejoiced that the ordeal was over. His face again resumed its expression of dignified self-importance. “Ten adorations! I understand. But now, batiushka, allow me to make a request. Because I, after all, was her father . . . you yourself know; in spite of everything she was my daughter. I should like to ask you to say the mass for her soul to-day. And I venture to ask you also, father deacon!”

“That is right!” said Father Grigari, taking off his surplice. “I praise you for that. I can approve of it. . . . Now begone! We will come out at once.”

Andrei Andreitch walked heavily from the altar, and, red-faced, with a solemn memorial-service expression, stood in the middle of the church. The watchman Matvei set before him a table with a crucifixion; and after a brief delay the mass began.

The church was still. Audible only were the censer's metallic ring and the droning voices. Near Andrei Andreitch stood the watchman Matvei, the midwife Makarievna, and her little son Mitka, with the paralysed hand. No one else attended. The clerk sang badly in an ugly, dull bass, but his words were so mournful that the shopkeeper gradually lost his pompous expression, and felt real grief. He remembered his little Mashutka. . . . He remembered the day she was born, when he served as footman at Verchniye Zaprudni Hall; remembered how in the rush of his footman's existence, he never noticed that his little girl was growing up. Those long years during which she changed into a graceful girl, fair-haired, with eyes as big as copecks, sped away unobserved. He remembered that she was brought up, as the children of all the favoured servants, with the young ladies of the house; how the squire's family, merely from lack of other work, taught her to read, to write, and to dance; and how he, Andrei, took no part in her training. Only when at long intervals he met her at the gate, or on the landing, he would remember that she was his daughter and begin, as far as time allowed, to teach her her prayers and read from the Bible. Yes, and what fame he gained for knowledge of the rubric and the Holy Scriptures! And the little girl, however rigid and pompous her father's face, listened with delight. She yawned, it is true, as she repeated the prayers; but when, stammering and doing his best to speak magniloquently, he told her Bible stories she was all ears. And at Esau's lentils, the doom of Sodom, and the woes of little Joseph she turned pale, and opened wide her big blue eyes.

And then, when he retired from his post as footman, and with his savings opened a shop in the village, the family took Mashutka away to Moscow.

He remembered how three years before her death she came to him on a visit. She was already a young woman, graceful and well built, with the dress and manners of a gentlewoman. And she spoke so cleverly, as if out of a book, smoked cigarettes, and slept till midday. Andrei Andreitch asked her what was her business; and she, looking him straight in the face, said boldly, “I am an actress!” And this frank avowal seemed to the retired footman the height of immodesty. Mashutka began to tell her father of her stage triumphs and of her stage life; but seeing her father's purple face, she stopped suddenly. In silence, without exchanging a glance, they had spent three weeks together until it was time for Mashutka to go. Before leaving, she begged her father to walk with her along the river bank. And, shameful as it was to appear in daylight before honest people with a daughter who was a vagrant play-actress, he conceded her prayer.

“What glorious country you have!” she said ecstatically as they walked. “What ravines, what marshes! Heavens, how beautiful is my native land!”

And she began to cry.

“Such things only take up space,” thought Andrei Andreitch, with a dull look at the ravines. He understood nothing of his child's delight. “There is as much use from them as milk from a goat!”

And she continued to cry, inhaling the air greedily, as if she knew that her breaths were already numbered. . . .

Andrei Andreitch shook his head as a bitten horse, and to quench these painful memories, began to cross himself vigorously.

“Remember, Lord,” he muttered, “thy dead slave, the Adulteress Marya, and forgive her all her sins!”

Again the improper word burst from his lips; but he did not notice it; what was set so deeply in his mind was not to be uprooted with a spade, much less by the admonitions of Father Grigori. Makarievna sighed, and whispered something, and paralysed Mitka seemed lost in thought.

. . . where there is neither sorrow, nor sickness, nor sighing!” droned the clerk, covering his face with his right hand.

From the censer rose a pillar of blue smoke and swam in the broad, oblique sun-ray which cut the obscure emptiness of the church. And it seemed that with the smoke there floated in the sun-ray the soul of the dead girl. Eddies of smoke, like infants' curls, were swept upwards to the window; and the grief and affliction with which this poor soul was full seemed to pass away.