The Russian Review/Volume 1/June 1916/The Old Bell-Ringer
The Old Bell-Ringer.
by V. G. Korolenko.
Translated for "The Russian Review."
The evening dusk has set in.
The little village, situated in a forest on the banks of a small river, is sunk in that peculiar dusk that sets in on a starry spring night, when a light fog rises from the ground, deepening the shadows cast by the forest and enveloping the open spots with a silvery-bluish haze. Everything is quiet, pensive, sad.
The village seems plunged in light slumber.
The huts are dimly outlined against the dark shadows; tiny specks of light are visible here and there; sometimes a gate would creak on its hinges; a dog would set up a howl, and become silent once more; occasionally human figures would appear from the dark forest, on foot, or on horseback, or on a squeaking wagon. They are the inhabitants of outlying hamlets going to their church to celebrate the spring holiday.
The church stands on a hillock, in the very center of the village. Its windows are lit up. Its belfry-tower, dark with age, thrusts its tall top into the bluish dusk.
The steps of the belfry staircase squeak, as the old bell-ringer, Mikheich, ascends the tower. Soon his little lantern hangs in the air like a star that has suddenly flown upward.
It is hard for the old man to climb those stairs. His old legs scarcely obey him, his eyes see very badly. It is time for the old man to rest from life's labors, but God does not send him death. He has buried his sons, and his grandsons, has followed old and young to the grave-yard, but he himself is still alive. The climbing is so hard . . . Many a time has he met the spring holiday on that belfry; he has already lost count of the number of times spring found him with his bells. And yet God has granted him another spring night.
The old man approached the edge of the platform, and leaned on the railing. Below him stretched the cemetery of the village; it seemed that the old crosses protected it, as if with outstretched arms. Here and there birch-trees, still leafless and bare, bent over the graves. Sweet fragrance of budding leaves was wafted up to where Mikheich was standing, and with it came a feeling of the solemn quiet that attends eternal sleep.
Where will he be a year hence? Will he again climb up this tower, to this platform under the great brass bell, and, with a resounding peal, awaken the slumbering night; or will he lie there, below, in a dark corner of the cemetery, under a wooden cross ? God knows . . . He is ready, but God has granted him to meet at least another spring holiday. "Glory be to the Lord," whisper his lips, repeating the formula he knows so well, and Mikheich, making the sign of the cross, looks upward into the starry sky that burns as with a million lights.
"Mikheich, eh, Mikheich!" a trembling old voice calls to him from below. The old deacon looks up from the ground, shielding his watery eyes with the palm of his hand, but he does not see Mikheich.
"What is it? I am here," answers the bell-ringer, leaning over the rail. "Don't you see me?"
"No. Isn't it time to strike? What do you think?"
Both look up at the stars. Thousands of God's bright eyes shine upon them from above. The fiery constellation is already high above the horizon. Mikheich is considering . . .
"No, I guess we'll wait awhile . . . I know my time."
He knows it well enough. He does not need a clock, for God's stars will tell him when the right time comes. The earth and the sky, and the little white cloud that sails through the blue, and the dark forest whispering something there below, and the splashing of the little river invisible in the darkness—all this is so familiar to him, so near. It is not in vain that he has spent his whole life here.
The far-away past springs into life again. He remembers how he climbed this tower for the first time, when he was still a child and his father brought him there. He sees himself as a little, blond-haired boy; his eyes are burning with excitement; the wind—not the wind that whirls the dust through the village street, but a different one, one that shakes its invisible wings high above the ground—raises his soft hair, making it flutter in the air . . . And there, far, far below, little human figures are moving to and fro, and the little houses of the village stand around, and the forest seems to be so far away, while the round clearing, in the middle of which stands the village, seems so large, almost limitless.
"Yet, there it is, the whole of it," smiles the gray-haired old man, as he casts his eye over the little clearing.
And the whole of life is like this. In childhood it seems that life has no end, no limit. Yet, there it is, as if represented on the palm of his hand, from its very beginning to that quiet little grave that he has chosen for himself in a dark corner of the cemetery. Well, what of that? Glory be to God! It is time for a rest. He has gone honestly all along his difficult road, and the earth is his mother . . . It is coming soon, very soon! . . .
But it is time to strike the bell. Mikheich cast another look at the stars, bared his head, made the sign of the cross, and began to gather the bell ropes. A moment later the night air was startled by the first resounding peal of the great bell. Then came another peal, and still another. One after another they were falling on the gently slumbering night, filling the air with majestic, prolonged, ringing, and singing tones.
The ringing ceased, and the service began in the church. Formerly, Mikheich would descend into the church and stand somewhere in the corner, praying and listening to the singing. But this year he remained in the tower. It is too hard for him to walk up and down the stairs. He sat down on a little bench, and, listening to the dying sounds of the brass, he fell into a profound revery. What was he dreaming about? He himself could not say. The belfry-tower was dimly lit by his little lantern. The humming bells were sunk in the darkness. At times, like a faint rumbling, the sounds of singing floated from the church, while the night wind gently swayed the ropes tied to the iron hearts of the bells.
The old man dropped his white head on his chest, and wandering thoughts began to crowd through his mind. He seems to see himself in the church. Dozens of beautiful, childish voices are singing in unison, while old Father Naum, dead long ago, pronounces the service. Hundreds of peasant heads, like ears of ripe wheat swayed by the wind, are bending down and rising again. The peasants make the sign of the cross. The faces are all familiar, although the men are all dead by this time. Here is the stern face of his father; here is his elder brother, sighing and making the sign of the cross by his father's side. And here is he, young, and healthy, and strong, and full of unconscious hopes of happiness and joy in life . . . Where is that happiness? His thought flares up like a dying flame, gliding along like a bright ray that illumines all the nooks and corners of his life . . . Unbearable toil, sorrows, and care . . . Where is that happiness? His hard lot will soon trace wrinkles on his youthful face, will bend his mighty back, will teach him how to sigh, as it has taught his elder brother . . .
Over to the left, among the women that stand there with meekly lowered heads, he sees his wife. A fine woman she was, God rest her soul! She, too, had to undergo unbearable suffering . . . But poverty and grinding toil will soon make her beauty wither; her eyes will grow dull, and the expression of constant fright before life's unexpected blows will replace her beautiful gaze . . . Where is her happiness? . . . One son remained to them, but him, too, human injustice had overcome . . .
And here is he, his wealthy enemy, bowing to the ground, praying for mercy for the orphan tears that are on him; making the sign of the cross, he falls down on his knees, striking the floor with his forehead . . . And Mikheich's heart boils and seethes, and the dark countenances of the icons gaze sternly upon human sorrow, human injustice . . .
All this is past; it has remained far behind . . . Now his whole world is this dark belfry-tower, where the wind whistles in the darkness, swaying the bell ropes . . . "Let God judge them!" whispers the old man, and bows his white head, while tears flow and flow down the bell-ringer's cheeks . . .
"Hey, Mikheich! Have you fallen asleep?" shout people from below.
"Eh?" The old man jumped to his feet. "My God! Did I fall asleep? I've never had such shame!"
Quickly, with his long-accustomed hand, he seizes the bell-ropes. Below, the crowd moves on like a procession of ants; the church banners flutter in the air, shining with their gold ornaments. Now the procession has encircled the church, and Mikheich hears the joyous shouts:
"Christ is risen from the dead . . ."
Like a surging wave, this shout strikes the old man's heart. It seems to Mikheich that the wax candles are burning brighter, that the banners are fluttering feverishly, that the wind has suddenly awakened, caught up the waves of sound, and borne them aloft on its broad wings, mingling them on high with the majestic ringing of the bells.
Never did Mikheich ring as he did that night.
It seemed that his overflowing heart transfused itself into the dead brass, and the peals of the bells sang and trembled and laughed and cried, as they rose upward to the very sky. And the stars burned brighter and brighter, and the sounds trembled and flowed, again falling to the earth and embracing it with a loving caress.
The great brass-bell thundered, hurling into space its mighty, commanding tones that resounded in heaven and on the earth with the words, "Christ is arisen!"
The two tenors, constantly startled by periodic strokes of their iron hearts, sang out joyously, "Christ is arisen!"
And the two little bells, hastening after the larger ones, sang out like children, outstripping each other in their joy, "Christ is arisen!"
It seemed that the whole tower was trembling and swaying, and that the wind, too, fluttered its mighty wings, and joined the chorus, "Christ is arisen!"
And the old heart forgot the past life, so full of cares and injustice . . . The old bell-ringer has forgotten that life has become contracted for him merely to the dimensions of that gloomy belfry-tower; that he is alone in the world, standing there as lonely as an old tree stump broken by lightning . . . He listens to these sounds, as they sing and cry, flying up to the sky, and falling back to the poor earth, and it seems to him that he is surrounded by his sons and grandsons, that it is their gladsome voices, the voices of the young and the old, that blend into this chorus and sing to him of happiness and joy, which he has not found in his life . . . And the old bell-ringer pulls the ropes, and tears run down his cheeks, and his heart beats joyfully with the illusion of happiness . . .
And below, men listened and said to each other that Mikheich had never rung as he did that night . . .
But suddenly, the great bell wavered and became silent . . . The startled smaller bells rang out the unfinished melody, and became silent, too, as if intently listening to the mournful prolonged note, that trembled and moaned and cried, slowly dying away in the air . . .
The old bell-ringer fell on the little bench, exhausted, and the last two tears were flowing down his cheeks.
Send someone now to replace him! The old bell-ringer has rung his last . . .