The Little Angel and Other Stories/Silence
On a moonlight night in May, when the nightingales were singing, his wife came to Father Ignaty who was sitting in his study. Her face was expressive of suffering, and the small lamp trembled in her hand. She came up to her husband, touched him on the shoulder, and said sobbing:
"Father, let us go to Verochka!"
Without turning his head. Father Ignaty frowned at his wife over his spectacles, and looked long and fixedly, until she made a motion of discomfort with her free hand, and sat down on a low divan.
"How pitiless you both are," said she slowly and with strong emphasis on the word "both," and her kindly puffed face was contorted with a look of pain and hardness, as though she wished to express by her looks how hard people were—her husband and her daughter.
Father Ignaty gave a laugh and stood up. Closing his book, he took off his spectacles, put them into their case, and fell into a brown study. His big black beard, shot with silver threads, lay in a graceful curve upon his chest, and rose and fell slowly under his deep breathing.
"Well, then, we will go!" said he.
Olga Stepanovna rose quickly, and asked in a timid, ingratiating voice:
"Only don't scold her, father! You know what she is."
Vera's room was in a belvedere at the top of the house, and the narrow wooden stairs bent and groaned under the heavy steps of Father Ignaty. Tall and ponderous, he was obliged to stoop so as not to hit his head against the ceiling above, and he frowned fastidiously when his wife's white jacket touched his face. He knew that nothing would come of their conversation with Vera.
"What, is that you?" asked Vera, lifting one bare arm to her eyes. The other arm lay on the top of the white summer counterpane, from which it was scarcely distinguishable, so white, transparent and cold was it.
"Verochka!" the mother began, but gave a sob and was silent.
"Vera!" said the father, endeavouring to soften his dry, hard voice. "Vera, tell us what is the matter with you?"
Vera was silent.
"Vera, are your mother and I undeserving of your confidence? Do we not love you? Have you any one nearer to you than ourselves? Speak to us of your grief, and believe me, an old and experienced man, you will feel the better for it. And so shall we. Look at your old mother, how she is suffering."
"And to me——" his voice trembled, as though something in it had broken in two, "and to me, is it easy, think you? As though I did not see that you were devoured by some grief——, but what is it? And I, your father, am kept in ignorance. Is it right?"
Vera still kept silence. Father Ignaty stroked his beard with special precaution, as though he feared that his fingers would involuntarily begin to tear it, and continued:
"Against my wishes you went to St. Petersburg—did I curse you for your disobedience? Or did I refuse you money? Or do you say I was not kind? Well, why don't you speak? See, the good your St. Petersburg has done you!"
Father Ignaty ceased speaking, and there rose before his mind's eye something big, granitebuilt, terrible, full of unknown dangers, and of strange callous people. And there alone and weak was his Vera, and there she had been ruined. An angry hatred of that terrible incomprehensible city arose in Father Ignaty's soul, together with anger towards his daughter, who kept silent, so obstinately silent.
"St. Petersburg has nothing to do with it," said Vera crossly, and closed her eyes. "But there is nothing the matter with me. You had better go to bed, it's late."
"Verochka!" groaned her mother. "My little daughter, confide in me!"
"Oh! mamma!" said Vera, impatiently interrupting her.
Father Ignaty sat down on a chair and began to laugh.
"Well then, nothing is the matter after all?" he asked ironically.
"Father," said Vera, in a sharp voice, raising herself up on her bed, "you know that I love you and mamma. But—I do feel so dull. All this will pass away. Really, you had better go to bed. I want to sleep, too. To-morrow, or sometime, we will have a talk."
Father Ignaty rose abruptly, so that his chair bumped against the wall, and took his wife's arm.
"Let's go—I tell you," cried Father Ignaty.
"If she has forgotten God, shall we too! Why should we!"
He drew Olga Stepanovna away, almost by main force, and as they were descending the stairs, she, dragging her steps more slowly, said in an angry whisper:
"Ugh! pope, it's you who have made her so. It's from you she has got this manner. And you'll have to answer for it. Ah! how wretched I am——"
And she began to cry, and kept blinking her eyes, so that she could not see the steps, and letting her feet go down as it were into an abyss below into which she wished to precipitate herself.
From that day forward Father Ignaty ceased to talk to his daughter, and she seemed not to notice the change. As before, she would now lie in her room, now go about, frequently wiping her eyes with the palms of her hands, as though they were obstructed. And oppressed by the silence of these two people, the pope's wife, who was fond of jokes and laughter, became lost and timid, hardly knowing what to say or do.
Sometimes Vera went out for a walk. About a week after the conversation related above, she went out in the evening as usual. They never saw her again alive, for that evening she threw herself under a train, which cut her in two.
Father Ignaty buried her himself. His wife was not present at the church, because at the news of Vera's death she had had a stroke. She had lost the use of her feet and hands and tongue, and lay motionless in a semi-darkened room, while close by her the bells tolled in the belfry. She heard them all coming out of church, heard the choristers singing before their house, and tried to raise her hand to cross herself, but the hand would not obey her will. She wished to say: "Good-bye, Vera," but her tongue lay inert in her mouth, swollen and heavy. She lay so still that any one who saw her would have thought that she was resting, or asleep. Only—her eyes were open.
There were many people in the church at the funeral, both acquaintances of Father Ignaty's and strangers. All present compassionated Vera, who had died such a terrible death, and they tried in Father Ignaty's movements and voice to find signs of profound grief. They were not fond of Father Ignaty, because he was rough and haughty in his manners, harsh and unforgiving with his penitents, while, himself jealous and greedy, he availed himself of every chance to take more than his dues from a parishioner. They all wished to see him suffering, broken-down; they wished to see him acknowledge that he was doubly guilty of his daughter's death—as a harsh father, and as a bad priest, who could not protect his own flesh and blood from sin. So they all watched him with curiosity, but he, feeling their eyes directed on his broad powerful back, endeavoured to straighten it, and thought not so much of his dead daughter as of not compromising his dignity.
"A well-seasoned pope," Karzenov the carpenter, to whom he still owed money for some frames, said with a nod in his direction.
And so, firm and upright, Father Ignaty went to the cemetery, and came back the same. And not till he reached the door of his wife's room did his back bend a little; but that might have been because the door was not high enough for his stature. Coming in from the light he could only with difficulty distinguish his wife's face, and when he succeeded in so doing, he perceived that it was perfectly still and that there were no tears in her eyes. In them was there neither anger nor grief; they were dumb, and painfully, obstinately silent, as was also her whole obese feeble body that was pressed against the bed-rail.
"Well, what? How are you feeling?" Father Ignaty inquired.
But her lips were dumb, and her eyes were silent. Father Ignaty laid his hand on her forehead; it was cold and damp, and Olga Stepanovna gave no sign whatever that she had felt his touch. And when he removed his hands from her forehead, two deep, grey eyes looked at him without blinking; they seemed almost black on account of the dilation of the pupils, and in them was neither grief nor anger.
"Well, I will go to my own room," said Father Ignaty, who had turned cold and frightened.
He went through the guest-chamber, where everything was clean and orderly as ever, and the high-backed chairs stood swathed in white covers, like corpses in their shrouds. At one of the windows hung a wire cage, but it was empty and the door was open.
"Nastasya!" Father Ignaty called, and his voice seemed to him rough, and he felt awkward, that he had called so loud in those quiet rooms, so soon after the funeral of their daughter. '"Nastasya," he called more gently, "where's the canary?"
The cook, who had cried so much that her nose was swollen and become as red as a beet, answered rudely:
"Don't know. It flew away."
"Why did you let it go?' said Father Ignaty, angrily knitting his brows.
Nastasya burst out crying, and wiping her eyes with the ends of a print handkerchief she wore over her head, said through her tears:
"The dear little soul of the young mistress. How could I keep it?"
And it seemed even to Father Ignaty that the happy little yellow canary, which used to sing always with its head thrown back, was really the soul of Vera, and that if it had not flown away it would have been impossible to say that Vera was dead. And he became still more angry with the cook, and shouted:
"Get along!" and when Nastasya did not at once make for the door, added "Fool!"
From the day of the funeral silence reigned in the little house. It was not stillness, for that is the mere absence of noise, but it was silence which means that those who kept silence could, apparently, have spoken if they had pleased. So thought Father Ignaty when, entering his wife's chamber, he would meet an obstinate glance, so heavy that it was as though the whole air were turned to lead, and was pressing on his head and back. So he thought when he examined his daughter's music, on which her very voice was impressed; her books, and her portrait, a large one painted in colours which she had brought with her from St. Petersburg. In examining her portrait a certain order was evolved.
First he would look at her neck, on which the light was thrown in the portrait, and would imagine to himself a scratch on it, such as was on the neck of the dead Vera, and the origin of which he could not understand. And every time he meditated on the cause. If it had been the train which struck it, it would have shattered her whole head, and the head of the dead Vera was quite uninjured.
Could it be that some one had touched it with his foot when carrying home the corpse; or was it done unintentionally with the nail?
But to think long about the details of her death was horrible to Father Ignaty, so he would pass on to the eyes of the portrait. They were black and beautiful, with long eyelashes, the thick shadow of which lay below, so that the whites seemed peculiarly bright, and the two eyes were as though enclosed in black mourning frames. The unknown artist, a man of talent, had given to them a strange expression. It was as though between the eyes, and that on which they rested, there was a thin, transparent film. It reminded one of the black top of a grand piano, on which the summer dust lay in a thin layer, almost imperceptible, but still dimming the brightness of the polished wood. And wherever Father Ignaty placed the portrait, the eyes continually followed him, not speaking, but silent; and the silence was so clear that it seemed possible to hear it. And by degrees Father Ignaty came to think that he did hear the silence.
Every morning after the Eucharist Father Ignaty would go to the sitting-room, would take in at a glance the empty cage, and all the well-known arrangement of the room, sit down in an arm-chair, close his eyes and listen to the silence of the house. It was something strange. The cage was gently and tenderly silent; and grief and tears, and far-away dead laughter were felt in that silence. The silence of his wife, softened by the intervening walls, was obstinate, heavy as lead; and terrible, so terrible that Father Ignaty turned cold on the hottest day. Endless, cold as the grave, mysterious as death, was the silence of his daughter. It was as though the silence were a torture to itself, and as though it longed passionately to pass into speech, but that something strong and dull as a machine, held it motionless, and stretched it like a wire. And then somewhere in the far distance, the wire began to vibrate and emit a soft, timid, pitiful sound. Father Ignaty, with a mixture of joy and fear, would catch this incipient sound, and pressing his hands on the arms of the chair, would stretch his head forward and wait for the sound to reach him. But it would break off, and lapse into silence.
"Nonsense!" Father Ignaty would angrily exclaim, and rise from the chair, tall and upright as ever. From the window was to be seen the market-place, bathed in sunlight, paved with round, even stones, and on the other side the stone wall of a long, windowless storehouse. At the corner stood a cab like a statue in clay, and it was incomprehensible why it continued to stand there, when for whole hours together not a single passerby was to be seen.
Out of the house Father Ignaty had much talking to do: with his ecclesiastical subordinates, and with his parishioners when he was performing his duties; and sometimes with acquaintances when he played with them at "Preference." But when he returned home he thought that he had been all the day silent. This came of the fact that with none of these people could he speak of the question which was the chief and most important of all to him, which racked his thoughts every night: Why had Vera died?
Father Ignaty was unwilling to admit to himself that it was impossible now to solve this difficulty, and kept on thinking that it was still possible.
Every night—and they were all now for him sleepless—he would recall the moment when he and his wife had stood by Vera's bed at darkest midnight, and he had entreated her "Speak!" And when in his recollections he arrived at that word, even the rest of the scene presented itself to him as different to what it had really been. His closed eyes preserved in their darkness a vivid, unblurred picture of that night; they saw distinctly Vera lifting herself upon her bed and saying with a smile—— But what did she say? And that unuttered word of hers, which would solve the whole question, seemed so near, that if he were to stretch his ear and still the beating of his heart, then, then he would hear it—and at the same time it was so infinitely, so desperately far.
Father Ignaty would rise from his bed, and stretching forth his clasped hands in a gesture of supplication, entreat:
And silence was the answer he received.
One evening Father Ignaty went to Olga Stepanovna's room, where he had not been for about a week, and sitting down near the head of her bed, he turned away from her doleful, obstinate gaze, and said:
"Mother! I want to talk to you about Vera. Do you hear?"
Her eyes were silent, and Father Ignaty raising his voice began to speak in the loud and severe tones with which he addressed his penitents:
"I know you think that I was the cause of Vera's death. But consider, did I love her less than you? You judge strangely——I was strict, but did that prevent her from doing as she pleased? I made little of the respect due to a father; I meekly bowed my neck, when she, with no fear of my curse, went away—thither. And you—mother—did not you with tears entreat her to remain, until I ordered you to be silent. Am I responsible for her being born hard-hearted? Did I not teach her of God, of humility, and of love?
Father Ignaty gave a swift glance into his wife's eyes, and turned away.
"What could I do with her, if she would not open her grief to me. Command? I commanded her. Intreat? I intreated. What? Do you think I ought to have gone down on my knees before the little chit of a girl, and wept, like an old woman! What she had got in her head, and where she got it, I know not. Cruel, heartless daughter!"
Father Ignaty smote his knees with his fists.
"She was devoid of love—that's what it was! I know well enough what she called me—a tyrant. You she did love, didn't she? You who wept, and—humbled yourself?"
Father Ignaty laughed noiselessly.
"Lo—o—ved! That's it, to comfort you she chose such a death—a cruel, disgraceful death! She died on the ballast, in the dirt—like a d—d—og, to which some one gives a kick on the muzzle."
Father Ignaty's voice sounded low and hoarse:
"I'm ashamed! I'm ashamed to go out into the street! I'm ashamed to come out of the chancel! I'm ashamed before God. Cruel, unworthy daughter! One could curse you in your grave——"
When Father Ignaty glanced again at his wife, she had fainted, and did not come to herself for some hours. And when she did come to herself her eyes were silent, and it was impossible to know whether she understood what Father Ignaty had said to her, or no.
That same night—it was a moonlight night in July, still, warm, soundless—Father Ignaty crept on tiptoe, so that his wife and her nurse should not hear him, up the stairs to Vera's room. The window of the belvedere had not been opened since the death of Vera, and the atmosphere was dry and hot, with a slight smell of scorching from the iron roof, which had become heated during the day. There was an uninhabited and deserted feeling about the apartment from which man had been absent so long, and in which the wood of the walls, the furniture and other objects gave out a faint smell of growing decay.
The moonlight fell in a bright stripe across the window and floor, and reflected by the carefully washed white boards it illumined the corners with a dim semi-light, and the clean white bed with its two pillows, a big one and a little one, looked unearthly and ghostly. Father Ignaty opened the window, and the fresh air poured into the room in a broad stream, smelling of dust, of the neighbouring river, and the flowering lime, and bore on it a scarcely audible chorus, apparently, of people rowing a boat, and singing as they rowed.
Stepping silently on his naked feet, like a white ghost. Father Ignaty approached the empty bed, and bending his knees fell face-down on the pillows, and embraced them—the place where Vera's face ought to have been.
He lay long so. The song became louder, and then gradually became inaudible; but he still lay there, with his long black hair dishevelled over his shoulders and on the bed.
The moon had moved on, and the room had become darker, when Father Ignaty raised his head, and throwing into his voice all the force of a long suppressed and long unacknowledged love, and listening to his words, as though not he, but Vera, were listening to them, exclaimed:
"Vera, my daughter! Do you understand what it means, daughter! Little daughter! My heart! my blood, my life! Your father, your poor old father, already grey and feeble."
His shoulders shook, and all his heavy frame was convulsed. With a shudder Father Ignaty whispered tenderly, as to a little child:
"Your poor old father asks you. Yes, Verochka, he entreats. He weeps. He who never was so wont. Your grief, my little daughter, your suffering, are my own. More than mine."
Father Ignaty shook his head.
"More, Verochka. What is death to me, an old man? But you——. If only you had realized, how tender, weak and timid you were! Do you remember how when you pricked your finger and the blood came, you began to cry. My little daughter! And you do indeed love me, love me dearly, I know. Every morning you kiss my hand. Speak, speak of what is grieving you—and I with these two hands will strangle your grief. They are still strong, Vera, these hands."
His locks shook.
He fixed his eyes on the wall, and stretching out his hands, cried:
But the chamber was silent, and from the far distance was borne in the sound of the long and short whistles of a locomotive.
Father Ignaty, rolling his distended eyes, as though there stood before him the frightful ghost of a mutilated corpse, slowly raised himself from his knees, and with uncertain movement lifted his hand, with the fingers separated and nervously stretched out, to his head. Going out by the door. Father Ignaty sharply whispered the word:
And silence was the answer he received.
The next day, after an early and solitary dinner. Father Ignaty went to the cemetery—for the first time since the death of his daughter. It was close, deserted, and still, as though the hot day were but an illumined night; but Father Ignaty as his habit was, with an effort straightened his back, looked sternly from side to side, and thought that he was the same as heretofore. He did not regard the new, but terrible, weakness of his legs, nor that his long beard had grown completely white, as though bitten by a hard frost. The way to the cemetery led through the long, straight street, which sloped gently upwards, and at the end of which gleamed white the roof of the lych-gate, which was like a black, ever-open mouth edged with gleaming teeth.
Vera's grave lay in the very depth of the cemetery, where the gravelled pathways ended; and Father Ignaty had to wander for long on the narrow tracks, along a broken line of little mounds which protruded from the grass, forgotten of all, deserted of all. Here and there he came upon monuments sloping and green with age, broken-down railings, and great heavy stones cast upon the ground, and pressing it with a sort of grim senile malignity.
Vera's grave was next to one of these stones. It was covered with new sods, already turning yellow, while all around it was green. A rowan tree was intertwined with a maple, and a widely spreading clump of hazel stretched its pliant branches with rough furred leaves over the grave. Sitting down on the neighbouring tomb, and sighing repeatedly. Father Ignaty looked round, cast a glance at the cloudless desert sky, in which the red-hot disc of the sun hung suspended in perfect immobility—and then only did he become conscious of that profound stillness, like nothing else in the world, which holds sway over a cemetery, when there is not a breath of wind to rustle the dead leaves. And once more the thought came to Father Ignaty, that this was not stillness, but silence. It overflowed to the very brick walls of the cemetery, climbed heavily over them, and submerged the city. And its end was only there—in those grey, stubbornly, obstinately silent eyes.
Father Ignaty shrugged his shoulders, which were becoming cold, and let his eyes fall on Vera's grave. He gazed long at the short little seared stalks of grass, which had been torn from the ground somewhere in the wide wind-swept fields, and had failed to take root in the new soil; and he could not realize that there, under that grass, at a few feet from him, lay Vera. And this nearness seemed incomprehensible, and imbued his soul with a confusion and strange alarm. She, of whom he was accustomed to think as having for ever disappeared in the dark depth of infinity, was here, close—and it was difficult to understand that nevertheless she was not, and never would be again. And it seemed to Father Ignaty that if he spoke some word, which he almost felt upon his lips, or if he made some movement, Vera would come forth from the tomb, and stand up as tall and beautiful as ever. And that not only would she arise; but that all the dead, who could be felt, so awesome in their solemn cold silence, would rise too.
Father Ignaty took off his black wide-brimmed hat, smoothed his wavy locks, and said in a whisper:
He became uneasy lest he should be heard by some stranger, and stood upon the tomb and looked over the crosses. But there was no one near, and he repeated aloud:
It was Father Ignaty's old voice, dry and exacting, and it was strange that a demand made with such force remained without answer
Loud and persistently the voice called, and when it was silent for a moment it seemed as though somewhere below a vague answer resounded. And Father Ignaty looked once more around, removed his hair from his ears, and laid them on the rough prickly sod.
And Father Ignaty felt with horror that something cold as the tomb penetrated his ear, and froze the brain, and that Vera spoke—but what she said was ever the same long silence. It became ever more and more alarming and terrible, and when Father Ignaty dragged his head with an effort from the ground, pale as that of a corpse, it seemed to him that the whole air trembled and vibrated with a resonant silence, as though a wild storm had arisen on that terrible sea. The silence choked him: it kept rolling backwards and forwards through his head in icy waves, and stirred his hair; it broke against his bosom, which groaned beneath the shocks. Trembling all over, casting from side to side quick, nervous glances, he slowly raised himself, and strove with torturing efforts to straighten his back and to restore the proud carriage to his trembling body. And in this he succeeded. With slow deliberation he shook the dust from his knees, put on his hat, made the sign of the cross three times over the grave, and went with even, firm gait, and yet did not recognize the well-known cemetery, and lost his way.
"Lost my way!" he laughed, and stood still at the branching paths.
He stood still for a moment, and then without thinking turned to the left, because it was impossible to stand still and wait. The silence pursued him. It rose from the green graves; the grim grey crosses breathed it; it came forth in thin suffocating streams from every pore of the ground, which was sated with corpses. Father Ignaty's steps became quicker and quicker. Dazed, he went round the same paths again and again, he leapt the graves, stumbled against the railings, grasped the prickly tin wreaths, and the soft stuff tore to pieces in his hands. Only one thought, that of getting out, was left in his head. He rushed from side to side, and at last ran noiselessly, a tall figure, almost unrecognizable in his streaming cassock, with his hair floating on the air. More frightened than at the sight of a corpse risen from the grave, would have been any one who had met this wild figure of a man running, leaping, waving his arms—if he had recognized his mad, distorted face, and heard the dull rattle that escaped from his open mouth.
At full run Father Ignaty jumped out upon the little square at the end of which stood the low white mortuary chapel. In the porch on a little bench there dozed an old man who looked like a pilgrim from afar, and near him two old beggar-women were flying at one another, quarrelling and scolding.
When Father Ignaty reached home, it was already getting dark, and the lamp was lit in Olga Stepanovna's room. Without change of clothes or removing his hat, torn and dusty, he came hurriedly to his wife and fell on his knees.
"Mother—Olga—pity me!" he sobbed; "I am going out of my mind."
He beat his head against the edge of the table, and sobbed tumultuously, painfully, as a man does who never weeps. He lifted his head, confident that in a moment a miracle would be performed, and that his wife would speak, and pity him.
With his whole big body he stretched out towards his wife, and met the look of the grey eyes. In them there was neither compassion nor anger. Maybe his wife forgave and pitied him, but in those eyes there was neither pity nor forgiveness. They were dumb and silent.
And the whole desolate house was silent.