NEAR the wooden portico below, built on to the outer wall of the precinct, there was a crowd of about twenty peasant women. They had been told that th_lder was at last coming out, and they had gathered together in anticipation.
Two ladies, Madame Hohlakov and her daughter, had also come out into th_ortico to wait for the elder, but in a separate part of it set aside fo_omen of rank.
Madame Hohlakov was a wealthy lady, still young and attractive, and alway_ressed with taste. She was rather pale, and had lively black eyes. She wa_ot more than thirty-three, and had been five years a widow. Her daughter, _irl of fourteen, was partially paralysed. The poor child had not been able t_alk for the last six months, and was wheeled about in a long reclining chair.
She had a charming little face, rather thin from illness, but full of gaiety.
There was a gleam of mischief in her big dark eyes with their long lashes. He_other had been intending to take her abroad ever since the spring, but the_ad been detained all the summer by business connected with their estate. The_ad been staying a week in our town, where they had come more for purposes o_usiness than devotion, but had visited Father Zossima once already, thre_ays before. Though they knew that the elder scarcely saw anyone, they had no_uddenly turned up again, and urgently entreated "the happiness of lookin_nce again on the great healer."
The mother was sitting on a chair by the side of her daughter's invali_arriage, and two paces from her stood an old monk, not one of our monastery, but a visitor from an obscure religious house in the far north. He too sough_he elder's blessing.
But Father Zossima, on entering the portico, went first straight to th_easants who were crowded at the foot of the three steps that led up into th_ortico. Father Zossima stood on the top step, put on his stole, and bega_lessing the women who thronged about him. One crazy woman was led up to him.
As soon as she caught sight of the elder she began shrieking and writhing a_hough in the pains of childbirth. Laying the stole on her forehead, he read _hort prayer over her, and she was at once soothed and quieted.
I do not know how it may be now, but in my childhood I often happened to se_nd hear these "possessed" women in the villages and monasteries. They used t_e brought to mass; they would squeal and bark like a dog so that they wer_eard all over the church. But when the sacrament was carried in and they wer_ed up to it, at once the "possession" ceased, and the sick women were alway_oothed for a time. I was greatly impressed and amazed at this as a child; bu_hen I heard from country neighbours and from my town teachers that the whol_llness was simulated to avoid work, and that it could always be cured b_uitable severity; various anecdotes were told to confirm this. But later on _earnt with astonishment from medical specialists that there is no pretenc_bout it, that it is a terrible illness to which women are subject, especiall_revalent among us in Russia, and that it is due to the hard lot of th_easant women. It is a disease, I was told, arising from exhausting toil to_oon after hard, abnormal and unassisted labour in childbirth, and from th_opeless misery, from beatings, and so on, which some women were not able t_ndure like others. The strange and instant healing of the frantic an_truggling woman as soon as she was led up to the holy sacrament, which ha_een explained to me as due to malingering and the trickery of the
"clericals," arose probably in the most natural manner. Both the women wh_upported her and the invalid herself fully believed as a truth beyon_uestion that the evil spirit in possession of her could not hold if the sic_oman were brought to the sacrament and made to bow down before it. And so, with a nervous and psychically deranged woman, a sort of convulsion of th_hole organism always took place, and was bound to take place, at the momen_f bowing down to the sacrament, aroused by the expectation of the miracle o_ealing and the implicit belief that it would come to pass; and it did come t_ass, though only for a moment. It was exactly the same now as soon as th_lder touched the sick woman with the stole.
Many of the women in the crowd were moved to tears of ecstasy by the effect o_he moment: some strove to kiss the hem of his garment, others cried out i_ing-song voices.
He blessed them all and talked with some of them. The "possessed" woman h_new already. She came from a village only six versts from the monastery, an_ad been brought to him before.
"But here is one from afar." He pointed to a woman by no means old but ver_hin and wasted, with a face not merely sunburnt but almost blackened b_xposure. She was kneeling and gazing with a fixed stare at the elder; ther_as something almost frenzied in her eyes.
"From afar off, Father, from afar off! From two hundred miles from here. Fro_far off, Father, from afar off!" the woman began in a sing-song voice a_hough she were chanting a dirge, swaying her head from side to side with he_heek resting in her hand.
There is silent and long-suffering sorrow to be met with among the peasantry.
It withdraws into itself and is still. But there is a grief that breaks out, and from that minute it bursts into tears and finds vent in wailing. This i_articularly common with women. But it is no lighter a grief than the silent.
Lamentations comfort only by lacerating the heart still more. Such grief doe_ot desire consolation. It feeds on the sense of its hopelessness.
Lamentations spring only from the constant craving to re-open the wound.
"You are of the tradesman class?" said Father Zossima, looking curiously a_er.
"Townfolk we are, Father, townfolk. Yet we are peasants though we live in th_own. I have come to see you, O Father! We heard of you, Father, we heard o_ou. I have buried my little son, and I have come on a pilgrimage. I have bee_n three monasteries, but they told me, 'Go, Nastasya, go to them'- that is t_ou. I have come; I was yesterday at the service, and to-day I have come t_ou."
"What are you weeping for?"
"It's my little son I'm grieving for, Father. he was three years old- thre_ears all but three months. For my little boy, Father, I'm in anguish, for m_ittle boy. He was the last one left. We had four, my Nikita and I, and no_e've no children, our dear ones have all gone I buried the first thre_ithout grieving overmuch, and now I have buried the last I can't forget him.
He seems always standing before me. He never leaves me. He has withered m_eart. I look at his little clothes, his little shirt, his little boots, and _ail. I lay out all that is left of him, all his little things. I look at the_nd wail. I say to Nikita, my husband, 'let me go on a pilgrimage, master.' H_s a driver. We're not poor people, Father, not poor; he drives our own horse.
It's all our own, the horse and the carriage. And what good is it all to u_ow? My Nikita has begun drinking while I am away. He's sure to. It used to b_o before. As soon as I turn my back he gives way to it. But now I don't thin_bout him. It's three months since I left home. I've forgotten him. I'v_orgotten everything. I don't want to remember. And what would our life be no_ogether? I've done with him, I've done. I've done with them all. I don't car_o look upon my house and my goods. I don't care to see anything at all!"
"Listen, mother," said the elder. "Once in olden times a holy saint saw in th_emple a mother like you weeping for her little one, her only one, whom Go_ad taken. 'Knowest thou not,' said the saint to her, 'how bold these littl_nes are before the throne of God? Verily there are none bolder than they i_he Kingdom of Heaven. "Thou didst give us life, O Lord," they say, "an_carcely had we looked upon it when Thou didst take it back again." And s_oldly they ask and ask again that God gives them at once the rank of angels.
Therefore,' said the saint, 'thou, too, O Mother, rejoice and weep not, fo_hy little son is with the Lord in the fellowship of the angels.' That's wha_he saint said to the weeping mother of old. He was a great saint and he coul_ot have spoken falsely. Therefore you too, mother, know that your little on_s surely before the throne of God, is rejoicing and happy, and praying to Go_or you, and therefore weep, but rejoice."
The woman listened to him, looking down with her cheek in her hand. She sighe_eeply.
"My Nikita tried to comfort me with the same words as you. 'Foolish one,' h_aid, 'why weep? Our son is no doubt singing with the angels before God.' H_ays that to me, but he weeps himself. I see that he cries like me. 'I know, Nikita,' said I. 'Where could he be if not with the Lord God? Only, here wit_s now he is not as he used to sit beside us before.' And if only I could loo_pon him one little time, if only I could peep at him one little time, withou_oing up to him, without speaking, if I could be hidden in a corner and onl_ee him for one little minute, hear him playing in the yard, calling in hi_ittle voice, 'Mammy, where are you?' If only I could hear him pattering wit_is little feet about the room just once, only once; for so often, so often _emember how he used to run to me and shout and laugh, if only I could hea_is little feet I should know him! But he's gone, Father, he's gone, and _hall never hear him again. Here's his little sash, but him I shall never se_r hear now."
She drew out of her bosom her boy's little embroidered sash, and as soon a_he looked at it she began shaking with sobs, hiding her eyes with her finger_hrough which the tears flowed in a sudden stream.
"It is Rachel of old," said the elder, "weeping for her children, and will no_e comforted because they are not. Such is the lot set on earth for yo_others. Be not comforted. Consolation is not what you need. Weep and be no_onsoled, but weep. Only every time that you weep be sure to remember tha_our little son is one of the angels of God, that he looks down from there a_ou and sees you, and rejoices at your tears, and points at them to the Lor_od; and a long while yet will you keep that great mother's grief. But it wil_urn in the end into quiet joy, and your bitter tears will be only tears o_ender sorrow that purifies the heart and delivers it from sin. And I shal_ray for the peace of your child's soul. What was his name?"
"A sweet name. After Alexey, the man of God?"
"What a saint he was! I will remember him, mother, and your grief in m_rayers, and I will pray for your husband's health. It is a sin for you t_eave him. Your little one will see from heaven that you have forsaken hi_ather, and will weep over you. Why do you trouble his happiness? He i_iving, for the soul lives for ever, and though he is not in the house he i_ear you, unseen. How can he go into the house when you say that the house i_ateful to you? To whom is he to go if he find you not together, his fathe_nd mother? He comes to you in dreams now, and you grieve. But then he wil_end you gentle dreams. Go to your husband, mother; go this very day."
"I will go, Father, at your word. I will go. You've gone straight to my heart.
My Nikita, my Nikita, you are waiting for me," the woman began in a sing-son_oice; but the elder had already turned away to a very old woman, dressed lik_ dweller in the town, not like a pilgrim. Her eyes showed that she had com_ith an object, and in order to say something. She said she was the widow of _on-commissioned officer, and lived close by in the town. Her son Vasenka wa_n the commissariat service, and had gone to Irkutsk in Siberia. He ha_ritten twice from there, but now a year had passed since he had written. Sh_id inquire about him, but she did not know the proper place to inquire.
"Only the other day Stepanida Ilyinishna- she's a rich merchant's wife- sai_o me, 'You go, Prohorovna, and put your son's name down for prayer in th_hurch, and pray for the peace of his soul as though he were dead. His sou_ill be troubled,' she said, 'and he will write you a letter.' And Stepanid_lyinishna told me it was a certain thing which had been many times tried.
Only I am in doubt… . Oh, you light of ours! is it true or false, and would i_e right?"
"Don't think of it. It's shameful to ask the question. How is it possible t_ray for the peace of a living soul? And his own mother too! It's a great sin, akin to sorcery. Only for your ignorance it is forgiven you. Better pray t_he Queen of Heaven, our swift defence and help, for his good health, and tha_he may forgive you for your error. And another thing I will tell you, Prohorovna. Either he will soon come back to you, your son, or he will be sur_o send a letter. Go, and henceforward be in peace. Your son is alive, I tel_ou."
"Dear Father, God reward you, our benefactor, who prays for all of us and fo_ur sins!"
But the elder had already noticed in the crowd two glowing eyes fixed upo_im. An exhausted, consumptive-looking, though young peasant woman was gazin_t him in silence. Her eyes besought him, but she seemed afraid to approach.
"What is it, my child?"
"Absolve my soul, Father," she articulated softly, and slowly sank on he_nees and bowed down at his feet. "I have sinned, Father. I am afraid of m_in."
The elder sat down on the lower step. The woman crept closer to him, still o_er knees.
"I am a widow these three years," she began in a half-whisper, with a sort o_hudder. "I had a hard life with my husband. He was an old man. He used t_eat me cruelly. He lay ill; I thought looking at him, if he were to get well, if he were to get up again, what then? And then the thought came to me-"
"Stay!" said the elder, and he put his ear close to her lips.
The woman went on in a low whisper, so that it was almost impossible to catc_nything. She had soon done.
"Three years ago?" asked the elder.
"Three years. At first I didn't think about it, but now I've begun to be ill, and the thought never leaves me."
"Have you come from far?"
"Over three hundred miles away."
"Have you told it in confession?"
"I have confessed it. Twice I have confessed it."
"Have you been admitted to Communion?"
"Yes. I am afraid. I am afraid to die."
"Fear nothing and never be afraid; and don't fret. If only your penitence fai_ot, God will forgive all. There is no sin, and there can be no sin on all th_arth, which the Lord will not forgive to the truly repentant! Man canno_ommit a sin so great as to exhaust the infinite love of God. Can there be _in which could exceed the love of God? Think only of repentance, continua_epentance, but dismiss fear altogether. Believe that God loves you as yo_annot conceive; that He loves you with your sin, in your sin. It has bee_aid of old that over one repentant sinner there is more joy in heaven tha_ver ten righteous men. Go, and fear not. Be not bitter against men. Be no_ngry if you are wronged. Forgive the dead man in your heart what wrong he di_ou. Be reconciled with him in truth. If you are penitent, you love. And i_ou love you are of God. All things are atoned for, all things are saved b_ove. If I, a sinner, even as you are, am tender with you and have pity o_ou, how much more will God. Love is such a priceless treasure that you ca_edeem the whole world by it, and expiate not only your own sins but the sin_f others."
He signed her three times with the cross, took from his own neck a little iko_nd put it upon her. She bowed down to the earth without speaking.
He got up and looked cheerfully at a healthy peasant woman with a tiny baby i_er arms.
"From Vyshegorye, dear Father."
"Five miles you have dragged yourself with the baby. What do you want?"
"I've come to look at you. I have been to you before- or have you forgotten?
You've no great memory if you've forgotten me. They told us you were ill.
Thinks I, I'll go and see him for myself. Now I see you, and you're not ill!
You'll live another twenty years. God bless you! There are plenty to pray fo_ou; how should you be ill?"
"I thank you for all, daughter."
"By the way, I have a thing to ask, not a great one. Here are sixty copecks.
Give them, dear Father, to someone poorer than me. I thought as I came along, better give through him. He'll know whom to give to."
"Thanks, my dear, thanks! You are a good woman. I love you. I will do s_ertainly. Is that your little girl?"
"My little girl, Father, Lizaveta."
"May the Lord bless you both, you and your babe Lizaveta! You have gladdene_y heart, mother. Farewell, dear children, farewell, dear ones."