THE SEALED ANGELEdit
It was Christmas time. The weather had become very severe, a cruel snowstorm was raging, one of those which make winter in the Steppes famous; a number of people had been driven by it to take refuge in the lonely post-house standing by itself in the midst of the level, limitless plain. Here were gathered together a crowd of gentlefolk, merchants, and peasants. It was quite impossible to pay attention to differences of rank and office in such a night shelter: wherever you turned you jostled against people; some were drying themselves, others warming themselves, others again were seeking even the smallest corner where they could take refuge. In the dark, low cottage overflowing with travellers the air was foul and a thick steam rose from the wet clothes; there seemed to be hardly a vacant place, either on the floor or on the stove or on the benches, and even on the muddy earthen floor people were lying everywhere. The landlord, a rough peasant, was not pleased either with his guests or his gains. He angrily slammed the door after the last arrivals, two merchants in a sledge; he then locked the door and, hanging up the key in the corner of the hut where the icons hung said decidedly:
“Now whoever you are who wish to come in you may beat your head against the door but I shall not open.” He had hardly finished saying this and having taken off his ample sheepskin pelisse and crossed himself with the ancient great cross, he was prepared to slip on to the hot stove, when a timid hand knocked on the window. “Who is there?” cried the landlord in a loud, impatient voice.
“We,” was answered in a muffled tone through the window.
“Well, and what do you want?”
“For Christ's sake let us in; we have lost our way and are frozen.”
“And how many are you?”
“Not many, not many; we are eighteen in all,” said the speaker at the window, stammering and with his teeth chattering; evidently a man thoroughly frozen.
“I have nowhere to put you, the whole house is crammed with people.”
“Let us in at least to warm ourselves.”
“And. who are you?”
“We are carters.”
“Are your carts empty or full?”
“We are laden with skins of beasts.”
“Skins; you are carrying skins, and you ask to pass the night here? Well, to be sure, nice people appear in Russia now! Be off with you.”
“But what are they to do?” said a traveller lying in a coat lined with bearskin.
“Let them unload their skins and sleep under them, that's what they can do,” answered the landlord; and having soundly rated the carters, he lay down on the stove and never stirred.
The traveller who was under the bearskin made an energetic protest against the cruelty of the landlord, but the latter paid no attention to his remarks. But he was answered from a far-off corner by a small red-haired man with a pointed wedge-shaped beard.
“Oh, don't condemn the landlord, sir,” said he, “his suggestion is right—they are in no danger with their furs.”
“Oh, indeed,” answered in a questioning voice the traveller in the bearskin.
“They are certainly in no danger of freezing, and it is much better that he should not let them come in.”
“Because they have now received his useful suggestion, and besides, if another helpless traveller comes here there will be room for him.”
Then the bearskin speaker said, “But whom is the devil likely to send here?”
The landlord now broke in. “Listen, and don't you chatter idle words. Is it likely that the Enemy would send anyone here where there are such holy pictures? Do you not see that we have here an icon of the Saviour and one of the Mother of God?”
The red-haired man added his testimony. “That's true. No saved soul would be brought here by the devil, but his guardian angel would lead him.”
“Well, I never understood that, and as I am very uncomfortable here I can't believe that my guardian angel brought me,” answered the garrulous bearskin.
Here the landlord spat angrily, and the red-haired man muttered amiably that everyone cannot see the angel's path, and only a real Christian can have an idea of it.
“You speak of this as if you were yourself such a real Christian,” said the bearskin.
“Yes, and so I am.”
“What do you mean? Have you really seen an angel, and did he guide you?”
“Yes, I saw him and he always guided me.”
“Are you joking?
“God forbid that I should joke about this matter.”
“And did you really see him, and how did the angel appear to you?”
“This, dear sir, is a very long story.”
“But it is quite impossible to go to sleep here, and it would be very kind of you if you would tell us that story now.”
“Do you really wish it?”
“Pray tell it to us, we are listening to you. But as you are there on your knees you had better come here to us. Perhaps we can manage to squeeze a little and sit together.”
“No, thank you, why should I crowd you? For this story which I am about to tell you should rather be told on my knees, because it is a sacred matter and a very strange one.”
“Well, as you like; but only begin to tell us quickly how you saw the angel and what he did to you.”
“I will begin as you wish.”
“I am, as you may easily see, quite a plain man, nothing more than a peasant, and I have been brought up and educated in a village. I don't belong here, but come from far away, and by trade I am a stone-mason, and brought up in the old Russian Orthodox Church. As I was an orphan I went from my youth up with other masons from the village to distant work in various places, but always in the same guild under a peasant from our own place, Luke, son of Cyril. This Luke is alive to this day, and is our best contractor. His business was an old-established one carried on from the time of his ancestors, and he did not lessen it but rather increased it and lived in comfort and abundance, and was an excellent man and not quarrelsome. And therefore we were ready to follow him everywhere. Whither did we not go? It seemed to me that we went all over Russia, and I never knew a better or more serious master. We lived with him, as it were with a kind patriarch, and he was our instructor not only in our trade but in our religion. We followed him in our labours, as the Jews followed Moses in their wanderings in the desert. We even had our tabernacle with us, and never parted from it: that is, we had the divine blessing with us. Luke loved his holy pictures dearly, and he possessed, dear sir, the most wonderful pictures, painted in the best taste of ancient times, either genuine Greek, or by the best artist of Novgorod. Each of those pictures seemed to surpass the rest, not only by its setting but by the subtlety and delicacy of the artist's talent. Such excellence I never saw anywhere, and there were ever so many different subjects in whose name the icons were painted, such as reverent fathers, martyrs, and apostles. There were three angels with Abraham bowing down to them by the oak of Mamre; in a word, all this beauty cannot be expressed, and no one paints such pictures now anywhere either in Moscow or Petersburg or Palekov; I say nothing of Greece, for this art has long ago been lost there. We all loved these holy pictures with a passionate love and burnt holy oil before them, and at the expense of the guild we kept a horse and a special cart on which we carried everywhere two great cases of them wherever we went. We generally had with us two icons, one from the Moscow copies of old Greek artists: the holy Virgin praying in the garden and before her all the old cypresses and olive trees are bowing down to the earth. But the other was the Guardian Angel which came from Stroganov. It is impossible to describe what artistic beauty there was in these two pictures. You look at the Virgin and see the simple soulless trees bowing down before her, and your heart is touched and trembles; you look at the Angel . . . Joy! This Angel was in truth too wonderful to describe; his countenane, as I always see it, seemed shining with divinity and readiness to help. His glance was compassionate, his dear little ears were pointed as if ever ready to hearken, his vesture shone and his tunic seemed powdered with gold; wings sprang from his shoulders, he wore a girdle; on his breast was the face of the babe Emmanuel: a cross in his right hand and in his left a fiery sword. Wonderful, wonderful! The locks on his dear little head were curly, and auburn, winding beneath his ears, and every hair was painted as if with a needle, and every curl nestled against the next curl. His wings were broad and white as snow, and each feather lay side by side, but the background of the picture was azure blue. You look at these wings and awe overpowers you; you pray ‘Overshadow me,’ and at once you grow calm, peace dwells in your soul. What a wonderful icon this was. These two pictures were to us what the Holy of Holies was to the Jews.
“All those icons of which I told you before we carried in a special case on a horse, but these two we did not even put on a horse, but we carried them ourselves. The wife of Luke, Michaela, used to carry the icon of the Virgin, but the picture of the Angel, Luke bore himself on his breast. He made for this icon a bag of gold brocade fastened with a button, and on the front was a red cross made of some rich scarlet stuff, and a thick green cord was sewn above, that he might hang it round his neck; and as Luke always carried this icon on his breast, and wherever we went it went before us, so this Angel guided us. We went from place to place to some new works on the steppes, Luke going before us, and, instead of a stick, waving a measuring rod; after him went the cart carrying the icon, the Mother of God, and after them we, the whole guild, marched. And here were grassy fields and flowery meadows, and there herds pastured, and pipers played on their pipes . . . all this was delightful to heart and mind. All went well with us, and it was astonishing how successful we were in all our undertakings; all our labours prospered, harmony reigned amongst us and good news reached us from home, and all this time the Angel that went before us blessed us, and it seemed that it would be harder to part with this wonderful icon than with life.
“Indeed you may well imagine that nothing would induce us to part with this sacred picture. In the meanwhile such a sorrow awaited us! and was prepared for us, as we afterwards understood, not by the subtlety of man, but by our Guardian Angel himself. He desired for himself this insult in order to make us understand that affliction is sacred, and to point out to us the true path, in comparison with which the road we had hitherto trodden was a dark and pathless forest.
“Pray tell me now whether you understand my story, and if I am not wearying you in claiming your attention?
“No, not at all, not at all,” we all cried out, “be so kind as to continue; we are much interested in this story.”
“As you wish, I will obey you and tell you as well as I can the wonderful deeds of the Angel that happened amongst us.”
“We went to a large city to carry out some great works there; we had to build a wide and important stone bridge over a great body of water, the river Dnieper. The city stood on the right bend of the shore, but we were on the left, on an outlying meadow, and a wonderful landscape spread before us. Ancient churches, holy monasteries with many dried bodies of saints, well-planted gardens and trees, the tall spires of poplars, such as you see depicted in old books. You gaze at all this and exclaim in your heart, ‘How beautiful’! You know we are but simple people, and yet we can feel the beauty of natural scenery which God has given to us, and we admired this place so much, that even on the first day we began to build a temporary dwelling. And, first of all, we drove in high piles, because the place was low and near the water; then we began to build a chamber for the holy pictures, and near to it a storehouse. In the chamber we placed all the holy pictures, as is right, according to the laws of our fathers; along the walls we ranged the icons in three rows the first for the large icons, and higher up the two shelves for the smaller ones, and thus they led like a ladder to the crucifix itself. But the Angel we placed on the reading-desk from which Luke read the Scriptures. But Luke and Michaela lived in the storehouse, and we ourselves lived in a small wooden hut close by. Thus we began to build, as men who have to stay in a place for a long time, and our little town sprang up on piles over against the handsome, solidly-built city. We began our work, and everything went on as well as possible. Our money was punctually paid by the Englishman at the office. God gave us such good health that no one was ill during the summer. But Luke's wife, Michaela, even began to complain, saying of herself, ‘I am not pleased, for I am getting too stout.’ But we, the Old Believers, were specially glad that we who had suffered persecution everywhere at this time for our ceremonies, were here free to worship; for here was neither a governor of the city, nor a provincial governor, nor a priest: we saw no one, and no one raised any obstacles to our religious rites. We were at liberty to pray, and when our hours of work were over, we gathered together in the chamber, and there so many lamps burnt before the holy pictures that our hearts grew warm. Luke started the hymn-singing himself, and we all joined in so heartily, that sometimes in still weather we could be heard in the far-off suburb. No one disturbed our worship, and many even came to it; it pleased not only the simple peasants who were accustomed to the Russian service, but even those of another faith. Many Church people who were of respectable character, but never went to the churches by the river, would come under our windows to listen, and even begin to pray. We never drove them away; in fact, it was impossible to drive them all away, for strangers who were interested in the old Russian service came to listen with approbation. The chief architect, an Englishman, Jacob Jacobovitch, even came with a notebook under our window and listened attentively that he might note down our tunes, and would sometimes return to his work humming to himself what he had caught up of the tune, ‘The Lord God hath appeared to us,’ but, of course, he sang it in a different way, because it was impossible in the new western notation to seize accurately the hymn set in the old measure. The English, let us do them this credit, are a most strict and devout people, and they loved us much and praised us, and considered us worthy folk. In a word, the Guardian Angel had guided us into a happy country, and opened to us the hearts of everyone, and the beautiful face of Nature.
“And in such a peaceful spirit as I have described to you we lived for about three years. We prospered in everything, and success poured down on us as it were from the horn of plenty, when suddenly we perceived that we had amongst us two vessels chosen by God for our punishment. One of these was the blacksmith Maroe, and the other the accountant Pemen Ivanoff. Maroe was quite a simple fellow and uneducated, which is rare amongst the Old Believers, but he was a singular man; awkward to look at, something like a camel, with a chest like a boar, one shoulder higher than the other. On his forehead was a mat of thick hair, and on the top of his head was a smooth place like a threshing-floor. His speech was thick and difficult to understand; he kept smacking his lips. His mind worked slowly, and his thoughts were so incoherent that he never could learn the prayers by heart, but now and then he would pick out a word and go hammering at it. But he was sharp-witted as to the future, and had the gift of prophecy, and could give hints which would come true. But Pemen, on the contrary, was a precise man, who liked to be important, and spoke with such acuteness and eloquence that his speeches astonished his hearers. His character also was lively and fascinating. Maroe was an old man of seventy, but Pemen was middle-aged and smart-looking. He had curly hair with a parting in the middle, bushy eyebrows and a ruddy face. In a word he was a dandy. These were the two vessels of wrath, and suddenly we had to drink a bitter draught.
“The bridge which we were building on eight granite piers had already risen high out of the water, and in the summer of the fourth year we began to clamp the iron chains on the pillars. But here a small obstacle occurred; when we began to fasten the chains to the piers many of the bolts were found to be too long. Now these bolts were made in England of the best steel, and were as thick as the arm of a stout man. We could not heat these bolts, as it would spoil the steel, and no tool could saw them through.
“Maroe, the blacksmith, found out suddenly a means to cut off a piece of the bolt. He put a layer of cart grease mixed with sand round the place, then he plunged it into snow, heaped salt round it, and began to turn it round and round in the snow; then he snatched it out of the snow, put it on a hot anvil, and as he brought his hammer down with all its force, the end of the bolt flew off like a piece of wax candle cut off by scissors. All the English and Germans came to look at this ingenious device of Maroe. They looked and they looked, and suddenly they burst out laughing, and began to talk among themselves, and said in our tongue: ‘You Russian, you are a brick; you understand something about chemistry.’ I cannot say how much of a chemist he was, but he understood nothing of science, but only used the wits God had given him. But our Pemen Ivanoff began to boast about this, and the workmen were divided into two parties, and began to dispute. Some attributed the matter to science, of which our Maroe was ignorant; but others said that evidently God had blessed us by a miracle such as we had never seen before, and this last idea was the beginning of our trouble. I have already told you that Pemen Ivanoff was a weak and pleasure-loving man, and now I must explain why we kept him in our guild. He went into the town to get provisions for us, he bought whatever was necessary; we sent him to the post office to arrange about our passports and money, and he brought back our new passports. All this he did exceedingly well—indeed, I may say in truth that in this capacity he was quite necessary to us and most useful. The real serious-minded Old Believer always disliked such business very much, and always avoided having anything to do with Government clerks, but Pemen enjoyed the bustle of affairs, and had a large acquaintance in the city on the other side of the river. He met merchants and gentlemen whom he had to see about the affairs of the guild; they all respected him and recognised him as one of our chief men. We, of course, laughed at this fancy of his, and his delight in drinking with the gentlemen and talking big. They spoke of him as our chief; he only smiled, but he chuckled inwardly—in a word, he was a braggart, and this brought our Pemen to acquaintance with a man in a good position. His wife was a native of our district; she was literary, and had read about us in some new books in which, unknown to us, we had been described, and suddenly, I don't know why, she declared she liked the Old Believers very much. Here was an astonishing affair for which she was chosen as a means! Well, she liked us, and she went on liking us, and when our Pemen had to call on her husband she always asked him to stay and drink tea. This pleased him, and he would talk very freely with her.
“Then she chattered with her woman's tongue: ‘I know that you Old Believers are so holy and so moral, and such a blessing rests upon you.’ At this the eyes of our dandy twinkled; he put his head on one side and smoothed his beard, and began in a honeyed voice: ‘We are indeed, lady; we keep the laws of our fathers, we do such and such things, we keep the rules and observe the good customs one toward another.’ In a word, he told her all sorts of things which are not suitable in a conversation with a fashionable lady. But she was interested, and went on to say: ‘I have heard that God's Benediction has appeared to you in a visible form,’ and he directly assented and answered, ‘It is indeed so, lady; it appeared in a visible form.’ ‘Visible?’ ‘Visible, yes, lady, quite visible; for just in these last days one man broke through strong steel as if it were a cobweb.’ The lady threw up her little hands in surprise. ‘Oh,’ she said, ‘how interesting. Oh, I am so fond of marvels, and I believe in them! I wish,’ she said, ‘that you would kindly order your Old Believer to pray for me that God would give me a daughter. I have two sons, but I do so wish to have a daughter. Is it possible?’ ‘Why not? It is possible,’ answered Pemen; ‘quite possible, only on such occasions it is always necessary that you should give holy oil for the lamps.’ The lady with great pleasure gave him ten roubles for the oil, and he put the money in his pocket and said, ‘That is well, be of good hope and I will arrange it.’
“Of course Pemen said nothing to us of all this, but the lady bore a daughter. And oh, what a fuss she made about it, and even before she had quite recovered she called our good-for-nothing to her, and honoured him as if he were a wonder-worker, and he accepted it all. To such a point had the man come, his mind was darkened and his feelings were congealed. In the course of the year the lady made another request to our God that her husband might take a country house for the summer, and again her wish was fulfilled, and again she gave Pemen money for holy oil and candles; and these offerings he stored away somewhere, but not on our side of the river. In fact it was wonderful what miracles were accomplished. The lady's eldest son was at school; he was an idle fellow and would learn nothing, but when the time of examination drew near she sent for Pemen, and ordered him to pray that her son might be put into a higher class. ‘This is a difficult matter. I shall have to drive all my people together, and make them pray all night, and they shall howl by candle-light till morning.’ But she made no difficulty about this, but gave him thirty roubles if only they would pray! And what do you suppose happened? Her truant son had such good luck that he was removed into a higher class. The lady almost went out of her mind with joy that our God had done so much for her. She made one request after another to Pemen, and he was so importunate with God that he obtained for her health, and a legacy, and a good post for her husband, and so many orders that they could not all be hung on his breast, and he carried one in his pocket, as they say. Such wonders happened, but we knew nothing about it. But the hour drew near when all this would be cleared up, and these wonders would be changed for others.
“There was some trouble in a Jewish town of the province among the Jewish merchants. I cannot tell you exactly whether it was about money frauds or about cheating the custom dues; but it so happened that the Government found it out, and it was foreseen that the matter would be very profitable for those who had to examine into it. For this reason the lady came to our Pemen and said: ‘Pemen Ivanovitch, here are twenty roubles for the holy oil and candles; tell your people to pray as heartily as they can that my husband may be sent to this town to look into the affair.’ This was no trouble to him. By this time he was quite accustomed to collect his oil duties; and he answered, ‘Very well, lady, I will give the order.’ ‘Oh, let them pray very earnestly, for I want this very much.’ ‘If they dared, lady, to neglect my orders and not to pray earnestly,’ said Pemen, reassuring her, ‘I would make them fast until they had prayed.’ Then he took the money, for he was a rogue; but the lady that very night heard her husband had received the appointment. The lady was so struck by the blessing she had received, that she was not satisfied to trust to our prayers, but was very anxious to give thanks in her own person to the holy icon.
“She spoke of this to Pemen, but he was frightened, because he knew that she would not be allowed to visit our icons; but the lady would take no refusal. ‘If you will allow me,’ said she, ‘I will take a boat and come to you this evening with my son.’ Pemen tried to persuade her that it was better that they should pray for her, adding, ‘We have such a Guardian Angel before whom you can burn the holy oils, and we will entrust your husband's safety to his care.’ ‘I am very glad,’ said she, ‘very glad that there is such an Angel, and here is money to burn holy oil in three lamps for him, and I will come to see it.’ Pemen was much disturbed; he came back to us and told us the lady's purpose, and excused himself, saying, ‘I tried to dissuade her, but as she insisted I could not refuse because her husband is a man who is useful to us.’ He told them a lot of rubbish, but not exactly the truth.
“Well, however unpleasant the visit would be to us, there was nothing to be done. We quickly took down the icons from the walls and hid them in boxes, and out of other boxes we took icons to replace them, which were of no value and were kept there by us only in case the officials made a search. We put them on shelves and awaited our guest. The lady came, but she was so befurbelowed that she was fearful to see, sweeping everything with her ample garments, and with her eyeglass she looked at all the sham icons we had there. And she asked, ‘Pray tell me where is the wonder-working Angel?’ Here was the difficulty. We tried to divert her attention. ‘We have no such Angel,’ we said; and though she went on questioning Pemen, we would not show her the Angel, and took her away and offered her tea and other refreshments.
“She did not please us at all, but why, I cannot say. Her appearance revolted us, although she was considered to be a beauty. She was tall and willowy and thin like a goat, and she had very marked eyebrows.”
“And how was it this beauty did not please you?” said the man in the bearskin coat, interrupting the story-teller.
“Excuse me, how could a serpentine form please us?”
“Then you don't reckon a woman a beauty unless she is like a clod of earth.”
“A clod of earth!” the story-teller repeated, without being offended. “What do you take us, for? We have a Russian idea of what a woman's figure should be, and it does not answer to the present flighty, fashionable type. But still we do not admire a clod; we do not admire the long-legged maypoles, and we like a woman to stand not on long legs but on strong legs, so that she may not stumble but roll about everywhere like a ball, and the willowy one will run and get her legs entangled. We do not like a serpent-like slimness, but we like something solid and plump; although it is not so supple, yet one feels motherhood in it, and good-humour and kindness.
“Now with regard to her nose; we don't like a hook-nose but rather tip-tilted, for in the family life you would find this much pleasanter than a thin, proud nose. Now with regard to the eyebrow, the eyebrow in a face reveals the character, and therefore it is necessary that a woman's eyebrows should not be knit but open and arched. For it is easier for a man to speak openly to such a woman, and she attracts people to her home. But the present taste has of course departed from this good type; it admires fragility in women, but this is quite useless. But I see that we have wandered from our subject, and I had better go on with my story.
“Pemen, like a man of business, had observed that we began to criticise our guest, and said, ‘What is the matter? She is kind-looking.’ But we answered, ‘We can't see any kindness in her face, but thank heaven she is gone; and we were so pleased to have got rid of her that we began to burn some incense to get rid of the smell of her! After this we cleared away the traces of our guest in the room; we put back the changed icons in the boxes and took out the real ones, and arranged them on the shelves as they were before. We sprinkled holy water on them, we prayed, and then we each went to our night's rest; and God knows why, but we could not sleep well that night, but were restless and uncomfortable.
“The next morning we all went to work, each to his post, but Luke was not there. This was surprising, considering how punctual he was; but it seemed to me still more surprising when he appeared at 8 o'clock very pale and agitated. As I knew that he was a man with much self-control, and not given to worrying about trifles, I observed him attentively and asked, ‘What is the matter with you, Luke?’ And he answered, ‘I will tell you afterwards.’ Now I in my youth was extremely curious, and I suddenly had a foreboding that some evil was threatening our religion; for I revered our faith, and was never an unbeliever. But I could not endure the suspense any longer, and on some pretext I left my work and ran home, and said to myself, ‘No one will be there but Michaela, and I can find out something from her.’
“Although Luke did not confide in her, yet she with all her simplicity was extremely shrewd, and could read his secrets; and she would not conceal them from me, for she had brought me up since my orphan childhood as her son, and was quite like a second mother to me. When I rushed into the house I saw her sitting on the steps outside the door, in an old skirt and a cloak just thrown over her shoulders, and she herself looked ill and sad and much disturbed. ‘Dear mother,’ said I, ‘why are you sitting here?’ ‘Where can I go to, Marochka?’ My name is Mark, but she with her mother feeling called me Marochka. Then I thought to myself, ‘What nonsense is she talking? Why has she nowhere to go to?’ And I said, ‘Why don't you stay inside your cottage?’ ‘'Tis impossible,’ she said, ‘Marochka, for grandfather Maroe is praying in the large chamber.’ ‘Oh,’ I thought, ‘then it is some misfortune about our religion.’ Then Michaela began to tell me: ‘Of course, Marochka, you don't know what happened to us during the night! ‘No, dear mother, I don't know.’ ‘Oh, dreadful things.’ ‘Tell me quickly, dear mother.’ ‘Oh, I don't know how to tell you.’ ‘Why can't you tell me,’ said I, ‘I am not a stranger; am I not as a son to you?’ ‘I know, my dear,’ she answered, ‘that you are like a son to me, but I don't trust myself to tell it to you properly, because I am stupid and ignorant; but wait a bit, your uncle will come when his work is done and he will tell you all.’ But I couldn't wait so long, and I urged her, ‘Tell me, tell me directly all that happened.’ But she, I saw, was blinking with her eyes, and they began to fill with tears; then suddenly she wiped them away with her neckerchief, and whispered softly to me, ‘My child, this night the Guardian Angel came to us.’ I was much agitated by her words. ‘Tell me, I pray you, quickly, how this wonder happened, and who were the witnesses of it.’ And she answered: ‘Child, it was an inconceivable wonder, but there were no witnesses but myself, because all this happened in the very middle of the night, and I alone was awake.’ And then, dear sir, she told me her story. ‘I went to sleep,’ she said, ‘after saying my prayer, and I don't know how long I slept; but suddenly I saw in my dream a fire—a great fire; it seemed that all we had was burnt, and the river was carrying the ashes away; it swirled round the tops of the piles, and swallowed up everything in its depths.’ But as to Michaela herself it seemed as if she had jumped out in an old chemise full of holes, and she stood by the river, and over against her on the other shore was a great red pillar, and on that pillar was a small white cock, who flapped his wings. Then she asked him, ‘Who are you?’ because she had a feeling that this bird was going to foretell something. But the little cock suddenly called out in a human voice, ‘Amen.’ After that he disappeared and was no more seen. Then a great silence seemed to reign round her, and there was such a calm in the air that a strange feeling came over her that she could not breathe. Then she woke up and found herself lying in bed and listened, for there was the bleating of a little lamb outside her door, and she understood by the cry that it was a very young lamb, whose birth-fleece had never been touched. In a little silvery voice it bleated out Baa, and suddenly by the sound she could hear it going into the chapel with its little hoofs going pit-a-pat on the floor, as if it was searching for something. Michaela thought to herself, ‘Lord Jesus Christ, what is this? We have no sheep in all our suburb; no lambs, then whence comes this little creature to us? And besides, how did it get into our cottage? Perhaps in the bustle of yesterday we forgot to shut the gate: Glory to God,’ she thought, ‘that it was only a lamb that got in, and not a dog to defile the holy icons.’ Then she tried to wake up Luke. ‘Luke,’ she cried, ‘Luke, get up quickly, for our door is open and a little lamb has jumped into the cottage.’ But Luke unluckily was in a deep sleep, and Michaela could not wake him up. He grunted a little, but said nothing. And when Michaela gave him a push, he only grunted the louder. Then Michaela began to call out, ‘Rise, in the name of Christ.’ Directly she mentioned that name something in the room gave a piercing scream, and Luke jumped up from his bed and rushed forward. But he suddenly stopped in the middle of the room as if he had run up against an iron wall. ‘Light a candle, woman, light a candle quickly,’ he cried to Michaela, but he himself did not stir from the spot. She lighted a candle and ran to him. He was pale, like a man condemned to death, and trembled so that not only the sweat broke out on his neck but his legs shook under him. His wife said to him, ‘Father, what is the matter with you?’ And he only pointed with his finger to the place where the picture of the Angel had been. It was empty, but the Angel himself lay on the ground at the feet of Luke.
“Luke at once went off to Grandfather Maroe and said, ‘Such and such things my wife saw, and such and such things happened in our home; come and look.’ Maroe came and went down on his knees before the Angel lying on the floor, and remained there a long time immovable, like a marble gravestone, and then raising his hand he scratched the bald place on his head and said gently, ‘Bring here twelve clean new bricks. Luke at once brought them, and Maroe saw that they were clean and straight out of the fiery kiln. Then he told Luke to put them one upon another to make a kind of pillar. This he covered with a clean cloth and placed on it the icon. And then Maroe, bowing down to the ground, cried out, ‘Angel of God, let the soles of thy feet go where they will.’ And as soon as he had said these words, suddenly there was a knock at the door and an unknown voice cried out, ‘Hi, you heretics! Where is your chief?’ Luke opened the door, and he saw a soldier with a medal standing there. Luke asked him, ‘Who is it you want?’ ‘I want,’ said he, ‘that man you call Pemen, who visited the lady.’ Then Luke at once sent his wife to fetch Pemen, and he asked the soldier, ‘What is the matter; why have they sent for Pemen in the night?’ And the soldier answered, ‘I don't know for certain, but the Jews have given some trouble to our master’; but what it really was he could not say. ‘I have heard,’ he said, ‘that he sealed them and they sealed him; but how they had sealed each other no one could understand or explain!’ At that moment Pemen arrived, and he, like a Jew, rolled his eyes first here and then there. He evidently did not know what to say. Then Luke said, ‘You have been after some rascally trick; now go and complete your rascally work.’ Then he and the soldier went off in a boat. In about an hour Pemen returned to us, and though he tried to look unconcerned we saw that he was uneasy in himself. Luke began asking him, ‘Tell us, you had better tell us all, you scapegrace, what have you been doing there?’ But he answered, ‘Nothing.’ But though he said it was nothing, it really was anything but nothing.
“An astonishing trick was played on the official for whom our Pemen had prayed. As I told you before, the official started for the Jewish town, and arrived there late at night, when no one was expecting him. He went straight to all the shops and sealed them, and let the police know that the next morning he would go to examine them. The Jews of course knew this at once, and that very night they went to see him, to try to arrange a bargain with him, as they had a large stock of contraband goods. They came at once and offered the official ten thousand roubles. He said, ‘I cannot take this; I am a high official in a position of trust, and I cannot take a bribe.’ He repeated again, ‘I cannot take it. They then offered twenty. ‘You don't understand, said he,’ that I cannot possibly take this, as I have already let the police know that I am going to-morrow to examine your goods.’ They again muttered among themselves and said, ‘Never mind, your worship, it does not in the least matter that you have let the police know; we will give you at once twenty-five thousand roubles if you will only let us have your seal till tomorrow morning, then you can go to sleep quietly: and we want nothing more.
“The official thought it well over, and although he considered himself a great personage, yet it is evident that the hearts of great people are not of stone, so he took the twenty-five thousand roubles, and gave them his seal with which he had sealed. Then he went off to bed. The Jews of course spent all the night in clearing their cellars of goods which ought to pay duty; they then put the seals on as before. The official was still sleeping when they returned to his antechamber, yet he had them shown in, and they thanked him and said, ‘And now, your honourable worship, you can examine our goods.’ But he, as if he had heard nothing, said at once, ‘Give me quickly my seal.’ Then the Jews answered, ‘But give us back our money.’ The official said, ‘What, what?’ But the Jews said, ‘We only left the money with you as a pledge.’ ‘What! as a pledge?’ ‘Yes,’ said, they, ‘as a pledge.’ ‘You lie,’ said he, ‘betrayers of Christ; you gave me the money as a gift.’ But they just nudged each other and laughed. ‘Listen,’ said they; ‘we might perhaps have given it, hem, hem, but do you think we are so stupid, and are like peasants without breeding, that we should offer a bribe to such a high official?’
“Well, did you ever hear such a story? Of course the gentleman might have given up the money, and the affair would have been over, but he delayed and hesitated, because he did not like to part with it. The morning came; all the shops in the town were shut; people were walking about and were astonished; the police were asking for the seals, but the Jews cried out, ‘What is this Government order? This high official wants to ruin us.’ It was a terrible affair; the official shut himself up, and nearly went out of his mind. But in the evening he sent for those crafty Jews and said, ‘Well, take your money, you cursed folk, and give me back my seal.’ But they would not give it back, but said, ‘We can't do that; we have done no business the whole day, and now your honour must give us fifty thousand roubles. Just think what a business; and the Jews threatened, ‘If you do not give fifty thousand now, to-morrow you will have to give us five and twenty thousand more.’ The official could not sleep at night, but in the morning he again sent for the Jews, and he gave them back all the money he had taken from them, and besides that, gave them a cheque for twenty-five thousand roubles. He then went off to make the examination of goods, but of course found nothing contraband. Then he went quickly home to his wife, and began to storm and rage. ‘Where,’ said he, ‘am I to find twenty-five thousand roubles to cash the cheque that I gave the Jews? I must sell the village that you had as a dowry, he said to his wife.’ But she objected. ‘I would not part with it for the world.’ Then he said, ‘It is your fault; you got this post for me through those heretics, and you said their Angel would protect me, and you see what a good Guardian he has been.’ But she answered, ‘It is you who are to blame. Why were you so stupid? Why did you not arrest those Jews and declare that they had stolen your seal? But in the meanwhile,’ said she, ‘do not disturb yourself, and I will arrange the matter, and others shall pay for your mistake.’ And suddenly she called out to someone who was there. ‘Go directly’ said she, to the Dneiper and bring me back the head clerk of the Old Believers.’ Her messenger went, of course, and returned with our Pemen, and the lady immediately and without any preamble spoke: ‘Listen to me; I know you are a clever man, and you understand what I want. A little unpleasantness has happened to my husband; some rogues have fleeced him, Jews, you understand; and now we want, as soon as possible, twenty-five thousand roubles, and we do not know where to get them in such a hurry. But I have asked you here, and trust you, because the Old Believers are clever and rich people, and I believe firmly that God helps you in everything, and I trust that you will kindly give me twenty-five thousand roubles; and I, for my part, will tell all the ladies of your wonder-working icon, and you will be surprised to see how much money you will receive for wax and oil.’
“You can easily imagine, my dear sirs, what our rogue thought of this change of affairs. I cannot tell you in what words, but I am quite sure that he began vehemently to assure her that we could not produce such a sum; but she, this modern Herodias, would not believe us. ‘I know well,’ said she, ‘that you heretics are rich, and that twenty-five thousand roubles are a trifle to you; when my father was in service in Moscow the Old Believers, not once, but often obliged him in this way, and this twenty-five thousand roubles is a mere nothing.’ Pemen of course tried to explain to her that the Moscow Old Believers were rich, but that we were simply workmen, hired by the day, and could not compete with the rich folk of Moscow. But she in truth had had a good Moscow education. ‘How can you say that to me? Don't I know how many wonder-working icons you have, and have you not often told me how much wax and oil is sent to you from all parts of Russia? No, I don't wish to listen to you, but unless I have the money at once my husband shall go to the Governor and let him know all about you, how you pray and worship, and you will suffer for it.’ Poor Pemen almost fell off the steps; he went home, as I have described to you, and the only word he said was, ‘Nothing.’ But he was as red as if he had come out of the bath, and went into a corner and blew his nose. Well, Luke at last got something out of him by questioning him, but of course he did not reveal everything, but only showed what a miserable creature he was. At last he said, ‘The lady wants me to get you to lend her five thousand roubles.’ Then Luke of course came down upon him for this: ‘Oh, you rogue, why did you get acquainted with these people, why did you bring them here? Are we rich? Are we likely to have so much money? As it was you who started this trouble, so you must get out of it as well as you can, but you cannot get five thousand roubles out of us.’ With these words Luke went off to his work, and arrived as I described to you, pale like a doomed man, because he knew what had happened in the night, and foresaw that we should get into trouble. But Pemen went off in another direction. We all saw that he started out of the reeds in a little boat and rowed over to the other side to the city; and now when Michaela had told me the whole story of the five thousand roubles which Pemen was asking for, I guessed that he had gone to ask the lady to withdraw her threats against us. With such thoughts I stood by Michaela wondering whether some harm would come to us out of this, and ought we not to take some measures lest a great evil should happen, when I suddenly saw that it was already too late to take precautions, for a large boat was coming to the shore and I heard the noise of many voices, and turning round I saw several officials all in uniform, and with them a large number of policemen and soldiers; and I had hardly, dear sirs, exchanged a glance with Michaela when they all came straight to us, and crowded into Luke's room, and placed two sentinels at the door with drawn swords. Michaela was much agitated at the presence of these sentinels, not only because they passed close to her, but lest they should arrest her. Of course they began to push her away, but she furiously defended herself, and a scuffle began in which a policeman wounded her badly, so that she rolled down the steps like a top. In the meantime I rushed to the bridge to find Luke, then I saw that he was running to meet me with all our band of work-men. They were all up in arms, and whoever was at work came with his tools, one with a crowbar, another with his pick; they all ran up to guard their holy icons. As many as could not get into the boat to reach the shore threw themselves from the bridge into the water in their working clothes just as they stood, and swam through the cold water. You will hardly believe how terribly in earnest they were to stop this business. Twenty soldiers had come, but although they were all in their fine uniforms yet our men were more than fifty, and all inspired with a fiery faith. They all swam through the water like seals, and so energetic were they that no heavy blows would have stopped them, and looking like dark stone figures they rushed up the bank where their holy icons were, and appeared suddenly all dripping wet.
“Now I must remind you that when we were talking with Michaela on the steps Grandfather Maroe was in the chamber praying, and the officials with their men found him there. He afterwards told me that as soon as they came in, the door was banged to and they straightway turned to the icons. Some extinguished the lamps, and others tore down the icons from the walls and threw them on the floor. Then they cried out to him, ‘Are you the priest?’ And he said, ‘No, am not the priest.’ ‘Who then is your priest?’ But he answered, ‘We have no priest.’ ‘What, you have no priest; you dare to tell us that there is no priest!’ Here Maroe began to explain to them that we don't have a priest. But as he could not well explain, having no gift of speech, they could not understand what he meant. ‘Bind him,’ they said; ‘put him under arrest.’ Maroe allowed himself to be bound, although the bit of string with which the soldier bound his hands was nothing to him; he stood quietly and endured all this for the sake of his faith, and looked to see what would happen further. Meanwhile the officials had lighted the candles to seal the icons; one sealed them, another wrote the inventory, and a third drilled holes in them with a gimlet, and strung the icons like kettles on an iron rod. Maroe observed this sacrilegious treatment of the holy icons, but he did not stir, because he considered that God had allowed them to show such savagery. But at this moment Maroe's ear was struck by a sound; then first one policeman cried out and then another, the door flew open, our band of men, like wet seals out of the water, plunged into the room.
“But Luke met them and at once cried out, ‘Stop, you dear people of Christ, don't riot in here,’ and he himself, pointing to the icons strung on the iron rod, addressed the official: ‘Why do you gentlemen injure these holy icons? If you have the right to take them away from us we will not rebel against the Government—take them; but why do you injure the wonderful artistic heirlooms of our forefathers?’ But here the husband of the lady whom Pemen knew, and who was the chief official, called out to Uncle Luke, ‘You rascal, do you dare to condemn our work?’ Now Luke was a proud peasant, but he smothered his feelings and answered quietly, ‘Will your worship allow us to make this arrangement? We have in this chamber about one hundred and fifty icons; we will pay you three roubles for each, only do not injure the wonderful icons of our forefathers.’ The head official's eyes glared and he called out loudly, ‘Out with you,’ but in a whisper he said, ‘Give me a hundred roubles for each picture, otherwise I will burn them all.’ Luke could not possibly grasp the idea of this sum, and he answered, ‘Good heavens! burn them if you will, but we cannot pay this money.’ Then the official remonstrated and said, ‘Oh, you bearded goat, how dare you speak to me about money?’ The official began to rage round the room and helped to string the icons on the rods and put screws on their ends so that nothing could be taken off or exchanged. And when everything was ready and they all began to leave the room, the soldiers began to put the rods on their shoulders and bore them to the boat. But Michaela, who had followed the crowd into the chamber, had recently stolen the Guardian Angel from the reading-desk and was dragging it under her shawl into the adjoining storeroom. But her trembling hands let it drop. Oh, dear sir, how the official did rave then and call us thieves and rascals. ‘Oh, you rascals, you wanted to steal it that it might not hang on the rod, but as it is not there see now what I will do to it,’ and taking the lighted stick of sealing-wax, he pressed it actually against the face of the Angel, and smeared it with the smoking, burning stuff. Dear sirs, you must not blame me if I cannot attempt to describe to you what now happened when the official poured the burning wax on the Angel's face, and, cruel man, raised the icon that he might boast that he found a means of annoying us. I only remember that the beautiful face of the Angel was red, and melted olive oil ran down in two streams from underneath the seal, like tears and blood.
“We all groaned and, shutting our eyes, fell on the ground as if we were under torture. And while we were lamenting dark night came upon us, and in the midst of our grief for the loss of our sealed Angel, here in the darkness and silence the thought struck us—we will follow wheresoever our Guardian Angel is taken, and we swear to steal him, even risking our lives in order to unseal him, and for this purpose we chose out a young man called Levontia. He was quite young, not more than seventeen, but well-grown, kind-hearted, and a Believer from his childhood upwards. He was also docile and amiable, and as easily guided as a fine white horse on a silver bridle. I could not have wished for a better agent in such a dangerous affair of following and seizing the Angel, whose blinded countenance was to us such a source of terrible grief.
“I will not trouble you with all the details of our endeavours to reach our end. We had to pass through difficulties as hard to meet as to go through the eye of a needle; but I will at once begin to tell you of the misfortune which overtook us, and our grief when we knew that our icons which had been carried hanging on a rod were stowed away in a cellar by the Church Council. They were buried as it were in a tomb, and we could do nothing about them. However, we were glad to hear that the Bishop himself had not approved of such savage treatment of the icons; but, on the contrary, had said, ‘Why was this done?’ and he even spoke for the ancient works of art and said, ‘These belonged to our forefathers, and ought to be preserved’ But strange to say, greater trouble came out of his opinion than out of the insults the icon had formerly received; for the Bishop, I must confess with a kindly feeling, looked long and attentively at our sealed Angel, and then turned and said, ‘What a wonderful expression; how terrible that it should have been injured. Do not store this icon,’ said he, ‘in the cellar, but place it on the altar in my chapel by the crucifix.’ This the servants of the Bishop did, fulfilling his order, but I must tell you that this attention of the Bishop, though it was gratifying on the one hand, was annoying on the other, because we knew that it was now impossible to carry out our intention of stealing the Angel. Another way occurred to us; to bribe the servants of the Bishop, and with their help to substitute another icon corresponding exactly with it. In this our Old Believers had succeeded more than once, but it would have been necessary to have the picture painted by a skilful and experienced hand; but we foresaw that we could not find such an artist in this place. There now fell on us all a double grief which came like a water-spout on bare skin; in the chamber where only prayers had resounded, now echoed cries and laments, and in a short time we were faint from grief and could hardly see the ground under us, for our eyes were full of tears. Whether our weeping caused this or not we were soon all suffering from a disease of the eyes, and no remedies seemed to cure it, and a rumour went through all the working people that this was brought about on account of the Angel of the Old Believers. ‘They blinded him with their sealing, and now we are all getting blind, said they; and such a rumour went amongst not only ourselves, but through the Orthodox Believers: and though the English architect sent for doctors no one would go to them, nor take their medicine, but they only cried out, ‘Bring us here our sealed Angel, for we want to pray to him, for he alone can heal us. The Englishman took great trouble about this business, and went to the Bishop himself and said, ‘Such and such things have happened, very reverend sir; faith is a great thing, and he that believes, to him shall be given according to his faith. Send over to our shore the sealed Angel.’ But the Church dignitary would not listen, and answered, ‘They ought not to say their prayers to him.’ This seemed to us a cruel decision, and we condemned the Bishop with many hard words; but later on it was revealed to us that all this happened not out of ill-will, but by Divine Providence. In the meantime signs were not wanting that the finger of avenging wrath sought out on that shore the very chiefest sinner in this affair—I mean Pemen, who ran away from us after our misfortune and joined the Orthodox Church. I met him once in the town, and he bowed to me, and I bowed to him, and then he spoke. ‘I regret, brother Mark, that while I was with you I did not belong to the right Church.’ And I answered, ‘As to the matter of faith, that is in God's hands, but that you, wretched man, betrayed us for an old shoe, that of course was very bad; and forgive me, but I must rebuke you for this as the prophet Amos commands.’ At the name of the prophet he trembled. ‘Don't speak to me,’ he said, ‘of prophets; I remember the Scriptures, and I feel that the prophets torment those living on the earth, and I even have a sign of it myself. And he complained to me that a few days before he had bathed in the river, and after that his body came out all piebald, and he laid bare his breast to show me, and I saw that he was all spotted like a pied horse from his breast upward to his neck. Then I nearly told him what was in my mind, ‘God stamps a rogue,’ as the saying is. But I restrained myself and did not utter the words, but said, ‘Pray rather and rejoice that you have this hall-mark on you now on earth; perhaps you will be purified in this world for another.’ He began to weep, and to tell me how much he would lose by this misfortune if the spots appeared on his face. It seemed that when he joined the Church the Governor had been much struck by his good looks, and said to the Mayor of the town that when some distinguished persons came to the town they must certainly choose Pemen to carry the silver salver with the offering of bread and salt. ‘But who would send a piebald man with the offerings?’ But I did not care to listen to his worldly vain talk, and I turned away and left him. And thus we separated entirely from him. The marks of wrath on him became still clearer. Many disasters also visited us; the worst happened in the autumn when, after the ice had formed, a sudden thaw set in, the ice was all broken up, and dashing against our masonry injured it. One of our granite piers was suddenly carried away, and the swirl of waters destroyed the labours of many years which had cost many thousands of roubles.
“Our English architect was struck by these misfortunes, but he would not listen to the proposal made to him that he should send us Old Believers away; but as he was a kind-hearted man, he sent for me and for Luke, and said, ‘Advise me, boys, what to do; can I not help or console you in some way? But we answered, ‘Until the face of our holy Angel who ever went before us, the face sealed with pitch, is restored to us we cannot be comforted, but shall pine away with grief.’
“‘And what do you intend to do?’ said he.
“‘We intend to substitute a modern picture for the ancient one, and to unseal the pure face defiled by the impious official hands.’
“‘Is he so dear to you, and can no other take his place?’
“‘He is dear to us,’ I answered, ‘for he has preserved us, and no other can replace him, for he was painted in the good old days by a pious hand, and consecrated by an ancient priest with the full ritual of Peter the Tomb, but now we have no priests and no ritual.’ ‘And how,’ said he, ‘will you restore the face now burnt by the sealing-wax?’ ‘As to that, your honour, do not trouble yourself. If we can only get him into our possession our Guardian Angel will take care of himself. This icon does not come out of a shop, but is the real work of an artist. The oil is so prepared that it preserves the picture, which will not fear the brand of fire nor the touch of pitch.’
“‘You are sure of this?’ ‘Quite sure; the oil is as strong as the old Russian faith.’ Then he began to abuse the persons who did not know how to take care of valuable treasures; then he shook hands with us, and added, ‘Don't grieve any longer, I will help you. Must you have the icon for any length of time?’ ‘No,’ we said, ‘only for a short time.’ ‘Very well then, I will say that I want to have a rich gilt setting made for the icon, and they will lend it to me, and we will then substitute another icon for that one.’ We thanked him, but said, ‘Do not bring the icon to-morrow, nor the day after.’ ‘Why,’ said he. We answered, ‘Because before we get the icon we must have another ready as like it as two drops of water, but we cannot find such a work of art either here or in this neighbourhood’ ‘Nonsense,’ said he; ‘I will send for an artist from the town who can not only copy well, but is able to take portraits admirably.’ ‘No,’ said we, ‘we cannot let you do that—first, because if you sent for an artist, a rumour of it would spread at once; secondly, because such an artist could not do the work required. ‘The Englishman would not believe this, and then I explained to him that the style of painting now was quite different.’ The oil paints now used are coarser than the old medium of white of egg. The brushes used are larger, and the picture must be looked at from a distance to give the effect. But the old paintings are finer in touch, like miniatures. The drawing, too, is different, for the modern artist is taught to follow the type of man he sees. But the old painter of icons imagined such types as belonged to the dwellers in heaven. A worldly-minded artist could never portray such celestial beings. He was interested in my account, and asked ‘Where, then, can we now find such imaginative artists?’ ‘They are very rare now’ (for at that date they were carefully hidden away by the Old Believers). ‘There is an artist in the town of Matera, Koklov by name, but he is very old, and could not take a long journey; and in Palekov there are two men, but it is very doubtful whether they also could come. But even if they could come, they are not the artists that we require,’ ‘Why won't these do either?’ And I answered, ‘Because they have not the gift for that kind of work. The design of the artist in Matera is a bit heavy about the head, and his colouring is muddy, and the artist in Palekov paints everything blue.’ ‘How, then, shall we manage?’ said he. I answered, I really do not know; there is still an excellent artist in Moscow. He is known all over Russia, but he paints more in the style of Novgorod and of holy Moscow; but our icon is painted in the Stroganov manner in the brightest and purest tints, and this only one artist can reproduce, Sebastian, from the low country. But he travels a great deal, and wanders all through Russia painting for the Old Believers; but where to find him I know not.’
“The Englishman listened with interest to my explanation, and smiled and answered: ‘It is surprising how interesting it is to listen to you workmen, who not only know your own trade well but are cultivated in matters of art and taste.’ ‘Oh, sir, how should we not know something about art, for painting is a divine work, and some of our simplest peasants are such admirers of it that they can distinguish between the different schools of painting, and tell you which were from Matera and which from Novgorod, or from the Volga, or from Siberia or Stroganov, and can even distinguish without a mistake the masterpieces of the well-known painters of ancient times.’ ‘Is it possible?’ said he. ‘Yes, indeed, just as you can distinguish between one person's handwriting and another's, so they will look and say, “That is by Kuzma, Andrew, or Procopia.”’ ‘By what signs?’ ‘There is a difference in the drawing, in the treatment, in the fusion of colours, in the lack of certain things, in the disposition of the limbs, and in the animation of the features.’ He listened, and I told him what I knew of various painters whose icons our honoured Czars and princes had given as a blessing to their children, and our Czars had commanded the priests to preserve these icons as the apple of their eye.
“The Englishman at once took out his notebook and asked: Tell me the names of the artists and where their works may be seen?’ ‘You would search for them in vain,’ said I, ‘the memory of them has perished.’ ‘Where are they gone?’ he said. ‘I don't know; perhaps the Germans have exchanged them for pipes or tobacco.’ ‘Impossible,’ said he. ‘On the contrary,’ I answered, ‘it is quite possible, and I can quote an example. There are door panels in the Vatican in Rome which were painted by our Russian artists in the thirteenth century, and these excellent miniature paintings are so striking that the greatest foreign artists, beholding them, are full of enthusiasm at their wonderful excellence.’ ‘And how did they get to Rome?’ ‘Peter the Great gave them to a foreign monk, and he sold them.’
“The Englishman smiled thoughtfully, and then muttered softly: ‘In England we have fine pictures, but they are carefully preserved and handed down from one generation to another, and therefore you can accurately trace their genealogy.’ ‘It is not so with us,’ I said, ‘for the links with our forefathers are broken in order that all may be made new, as if the Russian race only existed from yesterday, and had sprung out of a bed of nettles.’ ‘Are your people indeed so ignorant that there are not some who love the ancient works of art and would try to preserve them?’ ‘There are none, dear sir, who care to preserve them, for the new schools of art have everywhere destroyed the old feeling and replaced it by the vanity of intellectual display. The lofty inspired type is lost, and everything is earthly and breathes of earthly passion. Our modern artists paint the Archangel Michael like Prince Potemkin, and give Jesus Christ the countenance of a Jew. What can you expect from such people? It seems that their uncircumcised hearts can neither imagine nor portray what is divine, just as in Egypt they looked on the ox and the red-winged ibis as divine. But we neither bow down to strange gods nor paint the Saviour as a Jew, but these modern icons, however well painted, we consider frigid and uninspired and unsanctified, and turn away from them to the holy traditions of our forefathers, for the distraction of the eye by vanity ruins the purity of the mind just as a polluted stream ruins the fountain.’
“When I had finished and was silent, the Englishman said, ‘Go on, I am interested in what you tell me’; and I answered, ‘But I cannot tell you more.’ But he insisted ‘Yes, you can tell me more; I want to know what you mean by an inspired picture.’ The question, dear sir, was a difficult one for a simple peasant to answer; nevertheless I described to him how the picture of the starry heaven was painted in Novgorod. Then I told him of the picture painted at Kiev, which is in the cathedral of St. Sopha,, where the seven-winged archangels stand by the side of the God of Sabaoth, but of course they are not like Prince Potemkin, and on the walls of the entrance are prophets and patriarchs. On the lower step is Moses with the Tables of the Law, still lower is Aaron wearing a mitre, and with the rod that budded; on the other steps are King David with a cross, Isaiah with a scroll, and Ezekiel with the closed gates, Daniel with the furnace, and figures round them pointing the road to Heaven. The talents are painted by which man can reach that glorious goal. These are they: the book with seven seals is the gift of wisdom; the seven-branched candlestick is the gift of judgment; the seven eyes are the gift of good counsel; the seven trumpets are the gift of strength; the right hand in the midst of seven stars is the gift of vision; the seven censers are the gift of piety; the seven lightnings are the gift of the fear of God: such pictures, I say, bring comfort to the soul.’ But the Englishman answered, ‘Forgive me, I don't understand you; why do you call these pictures elevating?’ ‘Because such pictures clearly speak to the soul, for it behoves a Christian to pray and to yearn that he may be carried away from earth to behold the unspeakable glory of God. ‘Of course it is so,’ he said, ‘everyone can understand that from the holy writings and from the services.’ ‘No,’ I said, ‘everyone cannot understand; it is not given to everyone to understand the Scriptures, and to the uneducated man there are obscure things in the services, for one hears the words great and rich mercy, and immediately he thinks that this means about money, and he greedily prays for this. But when he sees a representation of the glory of heaven, and can imagine to himself the highest view of life, and understands that he must endeavour to reach that goal, for here it appears to him simple and intelligible, then that man will pray first of all, as a gift, to have the fear of God, and his soul will at once rise with ease from step to step gaining each time an abundance of the highest gifts, and then he will look upon gold and all earthly glory as things not worth praying for and as vile before God.’
“Here the Englishman stood up and asked gaily: ‘And what are all you Old Believers, you funny people, praying for?’ ‘We pray,’ I answered, ‘for a Christian death-bed, and a good conscience at the Day of Judgment.’
“He smiled, and suddenly pulled the gold cord of a curtain, and behind the curtain sat his English wife, knitting with long needles by a candle. She was a beautiful lady with kindly manners, and though she could not talk our language much, she understood everything, and no doubt wished to hear our conversation with her husband about religion. And what do you think happened? When the curtain which hid her was drawn back, she stood up at once as if much moved, and came, dear lady, to me and to Luke, stretching out her hands to us, peasants; tears were in her eyes as she pressed our hands and said, ‘Good people, good Russian people.’ When Luke and I heard her kind words we kissed her hands, and she laid her lips on our peasant heads.”
The narrator paused, and hid his eyes with his sleeve, then gently wiped them and whispered, “A feeling lady,” then recovering himself he went on: “After this kindly behaviour the lady began to say something to her husband, but of course we could not understand what she said, but we gathered from the tones of her voice that she was interceding for us. The Englishman, who was evidently pleased at his wife's kindness, looked at her with pride, and laid his hand on her head caressingly, and crooned like a pigeon to himself: ‘Good, good,’ or something like that, and we could see that he was praising her and reassuring her, and then he went off to his desk and took out two hundred rouble notes and said: ‘Here, Luke, is money, go and seek out some skilled painter who can give you what you need, and let him paint for my wife after your manner an icon which she wishes to give to her son, and my wife gives you this money to pay all the expenses.’ But she, through her tears, smiled and said hastily: ‘No, no, he gives you this, but I will add something,’ and she left the room and returned quickly with another hundred rouble note in her hand. ‘My husband gave me this to buy a new dress, but I don't want a dress, and would rather give it to you.’
“We of course refused at first, but she would not listen to us and ran away, and he said, ‘Don't attempt to refuse her, but take what she gives’; then he too left us, saying, ‘Away with you, my dear good people.’ But we of course were not offended by this curt dismissal from the Englishman, for we understood that he had done this to hide his feelings. And that is how it was, dear sirs, that our own kinsfolk brought misery to us, and these English strangers comforted us, and put into our souls such eagerness as if we had just had a bath of real life.
“Now begins, dear sirs, the other part of my story in mid-Whitsuntide, and I will tell it as shortly as possible; how, taking the docile Levontia, I went to seek an artist. I will also tell what places we passed through, what people we saw, what new wonders were manifested to us, what at last we found, what we lost, and what we brought back.
“It is important to a traveller to have a good comrade with him on his journey, for hunger and cold are more easily borne when shared with a kind and intelligent companion. This comfort was given to me by the strange youth Levontia. We started on foot with our knapsacks and a sufficient sum of money, and to safeguard us we had a short sword with a broad handle which we had always kept in case of danger. We gave out that we were travelling merchants, and invented details of our business when inquiries were made, but of course we were really occupied with our own affair. We stopped first for a while at Klinza and Zlinka, then we visited some of our brethren at Orla, but not finding what we required in these towns, for there were no skilful artists in them, we passed on to Moscow. But what shall I say? Oh, Moscow, Moscow! thou glorious queen of the ancient Russian race, yet we, the Old Believers, found no comfort in thee. I do not like to confess, and yet I cannot be silent, but we did not find in Moscow that inspired art for which we yearned. We found that there the Old Faith did not consist in piety and a godly life, but only in obstinate adherence to tradition, and the longer we stayed the more we were convinced of this. We were ashamed to confess it to each other, but we both saw that the true Old Believers had no place here, but would daily be scandalised. This shameful fact, however, we at first kept each in his own breast.
“Of course we found many skilful artists in Moscow, but this did not profit us when the inspiration was wanting which breathed in the works of the old masters. In former days when an artist devoted himself to painting sacred pictures, he fasted and prayed and then toiled in solitude with the same zeal, whether it were for much money or for little, as the dignity of this work requires. But here an order is painted in one way for one man, in another way for someone else, according to the price paid; a flimsy style of picture is produced which could not last long; the ground is soft chalk, not alabaster, and the artist spreads one thin coat of paint, not four or five coats as was done of old; this produced the tender tints which are not seen nowadays. And besides the want of accuracy in drawing, the artists, though so inferior, pride themselves on their own work, and cry down all the others. Or what is still worse, they join together in cliques to defraud the public; they meet at restaurants to drink and praise their own work with proud presumption, while they sacrilegiously call the work of another ‘hell-painted.’ Round them gather always, like crows and old owls, the sellers of counterfeit ancient pictures, which pass from hand to hand, and are made up with old boards, rotten here, worm-eaten there. Then they make the settings in brass, following the old designs, and making the enamel look as if it were really old. They change basins into fonts, and ornament them with eagles, to imitate the old ones of the time of Ivan the Terrible, and thus they defraud the inexperienced Old Believer, and persuade him that he is buying a real antique. All this is fraud and disgraceful deception. In a word, they behave like swarthy gipsies who trade in horses, and cheat and sell without shame. After this fashion did the painters of holy icons work, and to see this going on before our eyes was a shame and a disgrace to us. But to those who were accustomed to such practices it mattered nothing. They were even interested in the different styles of imitation, and would boast that they had cheated some buyers by supplying a fraudulent imitation of St. Denis, or a Virgin, or some other saint; and they all vied with each other in cheating ignorant pious Believers. As Levontia and I were simple peasant Believers, all this was insupportable, and we were so thoroughly disgusted that a fear overcame us; is it possible that our ancient Faith has become so corrupt? I said this to myself, but I saw that Levontia also had the same thought in his mind; we did not openly confess this to each other, but I saw that Levontia sought to be alone. One day I looked at him and I thought, can he bear this much longer? and I said: ‘Levontia, you seem to be worried about something.’ ‘No,’ said he, ‘there is nothing the matter with me.’ ‘Let us go,’ said I, ‘to the
66 RUSSIAN SKETCHES
restaurant in B. Street and have a talk with the artists there. ‘No, thank you, Uncle; you go alone, I had rather not.’ ‘And why won't you go?’ I asked. He answered: ‘I don't feel up to going.’ I did not like to force him to go, so I went alone once and again, but the third time I called him to go with me. ‘Come with me, my dear boy.’ But he refused politely. ‘No, thank you; please excuse me, and let me stay at home.’ ‘But, Levontia, you came with me to be my fellow-worker, and yet you persist in staying at home. You are not giving me the help I expected from you.’ ‘Dear Uncle, dear friend, don't ask me to go where they eat and drink, and talk scandal about holy icons, and might lead me into doubts.’ This was the first time he confessed his feelings about the matter, and I was struck to the heart by what he said, and I urged him no longer but went alone. That evening I had a long talk with two painters, and was much shocked by them. One of them sold me an icon for forty roubles and went away. The other painter said, ‘You won't care to offer prayers before this icon.’ ‘Why not?’ said I. ‘Because,’ said he, ‘it is hell-painted’; and then with his nail he scratched, and a layer of the paint flew off from one corner, and on the background below was painted a devil with a tail. He rubbed away another piece and another devil appeared. ‘Good heavens!’ I cried, ‘what does this mean?’ ‘It means that you must give your order to me and not to him.’ Then I saw clearly that these men had plotted together to play me a nasty trick, and, leaving behind me the icon, I went out with my eyes full of tears, but thanking God that Levontia, whose faith had received a shock, had not seen this. As soon as I got home I saw that there was no light in the window of the room we rented, but a gentle tender stream of song poured forth. I knew at once that the sweet voice was the voice of Levontia, and he sang with such feeling that each word seemed bathed in tears. I entered softly that he might not hear me, and stood by the door and listened while he sang the lament of Joseph:
- “‘To whom shall I sing my grief,
- To whom shall I utter my sobs.’
These verses were so full of sadness that it was impossible to hear them unmoved, and Levontia himself sang and wept and sobbed:
- “‘That I am betrayed by my brethren.’
And he wept, and he wept, singing of Joseph seeing his mother's grave, and calling upon the earth to lament the sin of his brethren. These words are always sufficient to agitate anyone, but especially myself at that time when I had just escaped evil treatment from my fellow Believers. I was so moved that I myself sobbed, and Levontia hearing me, stopped singing, and called to me, ‘Uncle, dear Uncle!’ ‘What is it,’ I said, ‘my dear boy?’ ‘Do you know,’ said he, ‘who is the mother mentioned in the song?’ ‘Rachel,’ I answered. ‘No,’ said he, ‘it was Rachel in old times, but now it must be understood in a mystic sense.’ ‘What do you mean by a mystic sense?’ I asked. ‘I mean that this word must now be understood in a different sense.’ ‘Take care, my boy,’ said I, ‘is it not dangerous to use your own interpretation?’ ‘No,’ said he; ‘I feel in my heart that Christ was crucified for us that we might seek Him with one accord with lips and hearts.’ But fear fell on me as to his meaning, and I said, ‘Let us get out of Moscow quickly, dear boy, and let us seek the painter Sebastian in the district of Nidjni Novgorod, for I hear he has gone thither.’ Let us go, he answered, ‘for here in Moscow I cannot breathe freely, but out in the country are woods and purer air, and I have heard that the hermit Pamba lives in that part; he is an old man free from sin and envy, and I would fain see him. ‘What have we to do with the old man Pamba?’ I answered in a severe tone; ‘he is a follower of the State Church.’ ‘Well, there is no harm in my seeing him. I want to see him that I may understand what is the grace that is given by the State Church.’ Then I scolded him, repeating, ‘What grace can there be in the State Church?’ but all the time I felt he was more in the right than I was, because he was anxious to examine, whilst I denied everything that I was ignorant of, and was obstinate in my resistance and talked foolishly. ‘The Orthodox Church,’ I said, ‘do not trust in the Divine guidance, but look to the teaching of Aristotle and to the star of the pagan god Remphan when they voyage on the sea; do you wish to study their point of view?’ And he answered, ‘You are mistaken, Uncle, there never was a god Remphan, but all is arranged by the Divine Providence’ And I spoke still more stupidly and said, ‘The Orthodox people drink coffee.’ ‘And what harm is there in that?’ he answered; ‘coffee is a bean, and King David received it as a gift.’ ‘Where did you read that?’ I asked. ‘I read it in books,’ he answered. ‘But everything is not written in books,’ I replied. ‘And what is not written?’ he asked. ‘Well, now I did not know what to answer, so I made another objection. ‘The Orthodox people eat hare, but that is not lawful.’ ‘What! it is not lawful,’ he said; ‘that is an error, it is created by God.’ ‘Now,’ said I, ‘would you not renounce the hare, when it is an unclean beast, with a donkey's nature, and breeds in man a thick and melancholy blood?’ But Levontia laughed and said, ‘Go to sleep, Uncle; you are repeating silly stuff.’ I must tell you that I did not yet guess what was working in the mind of this gifted youth, but I was very glad that he did not wish to talk any longer, for I knew in my heart that I was talking of things I did not understand. Then I lay down and was silent; only I resolved not to speak to him for a time on our journey, so as to show him that I was much displeased. But I was not strong-minded enough to continue steadfast in my resolve, and I soon began to talk to him as usual, only not about religion, for he was far more learned than I was. We talked about the country we were passing through, for each hour gave us fresh matter for observation in the great dark forests through which our path lay. I tried to forget the conversation I had had with him in Moscow, and determined to be on the watch to prevent our seeking out the hermit Pamba, whose fame had so strongly attracted Levontia, and of whom I myself had heard from Orthodox people of the wonders he had worked by his lofty piety. But, I thought to myself, there is no need to worry; if we avoid him he won't run after us.
“Thus we travelled on quickly and safely, and we came at length to the district which was our goal, and the rumour reached us that the artist Sebastian was wandering here; and we went from town to town, and village to village, seeking him, and we were often close on his heels but never came up to him. After we had gone twenty or thirty versts without resting, like hounds on a scent, we were told that he had been there but had left an hour before. On we went, but we did not overtake him. After one of these fruitless searches, one day quite suddenly Levontia and I disputed which road to take. I said, ‘Let us go to the right,’ and he insisted we should go to the left. He nearly persuaded me, but still I insisted on having my way. Well, on and on we went, but at last I saw that we had lost our way, for no path or track could be seen, and I said to the youth, ‘Let us turn back.’ But he replied, ‘No, Uncle, I cannot go back; I have no more strength.’ I was uneasy. ‘What ails you, boy?’ I asked. ‘Don't you see that I am quite giddy?’ And in truth I saw now that he was trembling, and his eyes had a look of vacancy. How suddenly all this had happened. He had not complained before, but had marched bravely, and now all at once he sank down on the grass in the wood, and leant his head on the stump of a tree, crying, ‘Oh my head, my head; it burns like fire. I cannot walk, I cannot go a step farther.’ Poor fellow; he sank down on the ground and lay there.
“This happened in the evening. I was terribly frightened, and while we waited there to see if he would recover, night drew on. It was autumn; we were in the dark in a strange place: around us were only firs and mighty pines, patriarchs of the forest, and the boy seemed to be dying. What was I to do? My eyes were full of tears as I said, ‘Could you rouse yourself, dear boy, that we might seek shelter for the night?’ But his head drooped like a flower cut down by the scythe, and he muttered, as if in a dream, ‘Do not touch me, Uncle Mark; do not touch me, but fear nothing.’ ‘How can I help being afraid in this lonely spot?’ He only said, ‘Do not sleep, but keep watch.’ I thought to myself, ‘Good heavens! what shall I do with him?’ But in the midst of my fear I began to listen. Far off in the wood I heard a crackling; then I thought it might be a wild beast, and that he would destroy us at once. I said nothing to Levontia, for I saw that his mind seemed to be wandering, so I only prayed, ‘Christ Angel, preserve us in this terrible hour!’ Then I heard the crackling come nearer and nearer, and something seemed approaching; and now I must confess to you, sirs, what a cowardly fellow I was. I was so frightened that I left Levontia lying there in pain, but I, like a squirrel, ran up into a tree. I drew out my sword and sat on a branch, and looked to see what would happen, with my teeth chattering like a frightened wolf. And suddenly I saw in the darkness, to which my eyes were now accustomed, that something was coming out of the wood, but I could not at first distinguish whether it were a wild beast or a robber; but at last I was able to discover that it was neither a wild beast nor a robber, but a little old man in a nightcap. I observed also that he carried an axe in his girdle, and on his back a great bundle of wood, and he was going towards the clearing in the forest. He sniffed the air several times like a dog on the scent. And suddenly he threw his bundle on the ground, and, as if he had smelt the presence of a man, he went straight up to my companion. He bent down, he looked him in the face, and took him by the hand and. said, ‘Get up, brother’; and what do you think happened? I saw him raise Levontia; he then took him straight to the bundle of wood, and bound it on his shoulders and said, ‘Carry this for me,’ and Levontia carried it.
“You may imagine, dear sirs, how frightened I was by such a miracle. Whence had this imperious, quiet old man come, and how could he at once give vigour to Leva, who had seemed at the point of death, and who could not raise his head, but now was able to carry a bundle of wood? I jumped quickly from the tree and threw my sword over my shoulder. I broke off a young sapling as a further defence, and went after them. I overtook them quickly, and saw the old man in front looking bent and small as I saw him before. His beard was white like the foam of soap, and my Levontia went after him, and his steps followed boldly in the footsteps of the old man. Though I spoke to him and touched his arm, he paid no attention to me, but walked as if in his sleep. Then I ran to the old man's side and said, ‘My dear good man.’ ‘What do you want?’ he asked. ‘Where are you leading us?’ I said. ‘I never lead anyone anywhere; it is the Lord who leadeth every man.’ And saying this he suddenly stopped; and I saw in front of us a wall and a large door, and a little door cut in it, and the old man began to knock at the door and cry out, ‘Brother Meron! Hi! Brother Meron!’ Then a gruff harsh voice answered: ‘You come again so late at night, go and sleep in the wood. I will not let you in.’ Then the old man pleaded gently and besought to be let in. ‘Brother, open the door.’ Then the gruff old man suddenly opened the door, and he wore the same kind of nightcap as the first one, but he was rough and coarse; and the little old man had scarcely crossed the threshold than the doorkeeper gave him a push which nearly threw him down, yet he answered, ‘God save thee, brother, and requite thee for thy service.’ ‘Good heavens,’ I thought, ‘what place is this we have come to?’ And suddenly it flashed upon me and I understood. ‘Have we not found the meek recluse Pamba? It would have been better,’ I thought, ‘to have got lost in the thick forest, or killed by a wild beast, or have fallen into a den of robbers, than to have come under his roof.’ He led us into a small hut, and lighted a yellow wax candle, and then I soon realised that we were in the hermit's dwelling, and I could restrain myself no longer. ‘Forgive me, pious man,’ I exclaimed, ‘is it proper that I and my companion should stay in this place where you have led us?’ And he answered, ‘The whole earth is the Lord's, and blessed are those that dwell therein. Lie down and sleep.’ But, said I, ‘let me explain to you that we belong to the Old Believers.’ ‘All,’ he answered, ‘are one body in Christ; He will unite us all.’ He then led us into a corner where he had a humble narrow couch of matting on the floor, with a log of wood for a bolster and straw for a covering, and again he murmured, ‘Sleep.’ Then Levontia, like an obedient youth, sank down on the couch; but I, mindful of his danger, said, ‘Holy man, forgive me for asking one more question.’ And he answered, ‘Why ask questions? God knows all.’ ‘Tell me your name,’ I said. But he, as if wishing to avoid answering, repeated playfully an old wives saying: ‘They call me what they call me,’ and with these idle words he slipped with his candle into a small store-room, dark and narrow as a coffin, when the same gruff man suddenly called out to him, ‘Don't dare to keep the light burning, you will burn the cell; you may pray out of your book in the day, but now you must pray in the dark.’ ‘I won't burn a light,’ he answered; ‘I won't burn a light, Brother Meron. God preserve you.’ And he blew out the light. I whispered to him, ‘Father, who is it who threatens you so harshly? and he answered, That is my servant Meron, a good fellow; he takes care of me. Good heavens, I think, this is the hermit Pamba, there is no other like him, so free from envy and anger. Here's a disaster! He will convert us and corrupt us; there is only one thing to do, and that is to fly from here early to-morrow morning at dawn and snatch Levontia away, that Pamba may not know where we have gone. Having made this plan I lay down, but not to sleep, but to watch for the first light in order to wake up the youth, and to fly. But in order not to dose or to sleep, I began to repeat the Belief, as was ordained of old, and as soon as I had said it I went on directly to say, ‘This is the Apostolic Faith, the Catholic Faith, this is the inspired Faith which I affirm,’ and then I began over again. I don't know how many times I had repeated the Belief, but certainly many times in order to keep awake; but the old man all the time was praying in his cell, and through the chinks of the laths a light seemed to gleam, and I saw how he was bowed in prayer, and then I suddenly seemed to hear a conversation beginning. I cannot explain how it was, but it seemed as if Levontia had gone in to the old man, and they were talking about faith, but without words, as if they looked at one another and understood each other. I was so taken up by this that I forgot to repeat the Belief; and as I listened the old man seemed to say to the youth, ‘Come, purify yourself,’ and he answered, ‘I will be purified.’ I cannot tell you whether all this was in a dream or not in a dream, but I must have slept for a long time, for when I awoke at length I saw that it was bright morning, and the old man, our host, the hermit, sat and was working at bast shoes which lay on his knees. I observed him carefully. Oh, how pious he was, how inspired; he sat just like an angel before me and plaited the shoes. As I looked at him I saw that he was looking at me and smiling, and he said, ‘You have slept enough, Mark; now it is time to work.’ I answered, ‘Oh, man of God, tell me what is my work; do not you know everything?’ ‘I know this,’ he said, ‘would a man travel so far if he had not an object for his journey? All roads, my brother, all roads seek the Lord; may the Lord help your humility.’ ‘Where is my humility, holy man?’ said I; ‘you are humble, but what humility can I have in the midst of the world's vanity?’ And he answered, ‘Oh, brother, I am not at peace, I am very bold. I want a portion in the heavenly kingdom.’ Then suddenly, mindful of his sins, he clasped his hands and wept like a little child. ‘O Lord,’ he prayed, ‘be not angry at my wilfulness; send me into the depths of hell, and let the devils torment me as I deserve.’ ‘Glory to God,’ I thought, ‘this cannot be the sagacious hermit Pamba; this is simply an old man whose brain is diseased.’ For I reflected, how could a man in his senses give up his share in the kingdom of heaven and pray that God would send him below to be tormented by devils? I never heard of such a wish in all my life, and could only think he was out of his mind, and therefore turned away from the old man's tears, deeming that his diseased brain had made him a devil-worshipper. At length I asked myself, ‘Why am I lying here; it is time to get up.’ Then I suddenly saw that the door opened and Levontia came in. I had completely forgotten him. He at once fell at the feet of the old man, and said, ‘Father, all is finished, now bless me.’ The old man looked at him and answered, ‘Peace be with thee, rest.’ Then I saw that my youth again bowed down to the earth and went out, and the hermit began to plait his bast shoes. I jumped up and thought to myself, ‘I will take Levontia away from here without stopping to look back,’ and I went out at once into the little passage and saw that my youth was lying there on a wooden bench without any support for his head. He lay at full length, with his hands clasped on his breast. I would not let him see I was frightened, so I asked him quietly, ‘Do you know where I can draw some water in order to wash my face?’ but I whispered to him, ‘I conjure you by the living God let us get away from here quickly.’ But, looking at him more closely, I saw that Levontia no longer breathed. He had passed away, he had died. My voice sounded strange as I shouted out, ‘Pamba, Father Pamba, you have killed my boy!’ But Pamba appeared quietly on the threshold, and said in a joyful tone, ‘Our Leva has flown above.’ Then anger seized me. ‘Yes, I answered through my tears,’ he has flown above; you have let his soul fly out like a dove from a cage. He is gone. And I turned towards the dead youth, and wept and groaned over him till evening, when monks came out of the monastery. They washed him and laid him in a coffin and carried him off. For that morning, while I slept soundly, he had been received into the Orthodox Church.
“I said not a word more to Father Pamba, for what could I say to him? If I spoke harshly to him he would bless me, if I struck him he would bow down to the earth. Such a peace-loving man was invincible. Who could terrify such a man when he himself had asked to be sent to hell? No, it was in vain that I threatened him that he would corrupt us like a festering wound. His peaceful soul would either drive out all the demons from hell or would return to God. They would begin to torment, and he would say, ‘Torture me harder, for I deserve it.’ No, no; even Satan himself could not withstand this humble spirit. Satan would beat down all the hands lifted against his victim; Satan would tear away all the claws, and would throw himself helpless before the Creator, lying ashamed before him, and overcome by such love. Thus I meditated, and decided that this old man with his bast shoe had been created to overcome hell. I wandered in the wood all the night, not knowing how far I went, and I thought to myself after what manner doth he pray, with what icon and with what books? Then I remembered that I had seen no icon in his hut, only a cross made of twigs and bound with bast. I did not even see any large books. ‘O Lord, how can I dare to judge this man; if only there are even two such men in the Orthodox Church then the Old Believers are doomed, because this man is all love.’ I pondered over all this, and suddenly towards morning I began to yearn for one moment's sight of him before my departure. Just as these thoughts passed through my mind I heard the same sound of crackling as once before, and suddenly Father Pamba appeared with an axe and a bundle of wood, and said, ‘Why do you delay longer? Go, hasten to build up Babylon.’ This seemed very bitter to me, and I replied, ‘Why do you reproach me, old man, with these words? I never built any Babylon, and I withdraw myself from Babylonish abomination.’ And he answered, ‘What does Babylon mean? A pillar of pride. Don't pride yourself on your righteousness, or the Angel will forsake you.’ And I said, ‘Father, do you know why I am wandering here?’ Then I told him about all our misfortunes, and he listened to it all. He listened, and he answered, ‘The Angel is meek, the Angel is humble; what the Lord will tell him he will do. This is what an Angel means: he lives in the soul of man, he is sealed up by the vanity of knowledge, but love breaks the seal.’ Saying this he left me, but I could not turn away my eyes from him. I was quite overcome, and bowed to the ground to him, but when I rose up I saw that he was no longer there; either he had gone among the trees or . . . God knows whither he went.
Now I began to think over his words. ‘What did they mean?’ ‘The Angel lives in the soul, and is sealed up, but love sets him free.’ Then suddenly I thought, ‘But supposing he himself is the Angel, and God allows him to appear to me in a vision, I shall die like Levontia.’ Having made this guess I cannot tell how it happened, nor on what log I floated across the river and began my flight; I went sixty versts without stopping, full of fear lest it was the Angel I had really seen. And suddenly I came to a village, and found the painter Sebastian was there. I at once talked over the matter with him, and we arranged to start the next morning. But we were on cold terms, and we were on still colder terms on our journey. But why was this? Perhaps because the painter Sebastian was a melancholy man, and perhaps still more because I could not shake off the thoughts of the hermit Pamba; and my lips whispered the words of the prophet Isaiah, ‘The spirit of God is in the nostrils of this man.’
“We managed our return journey very quickly, and having got home we found everything going on all right. As soon as we had seen our own people, we straightway went to the English contractor, Jacob Jacobovitch, who was curious to see the painter and much interested in the matter. He observed the artist's hands, and shrugged his shoulders when he saw that they were bigger than pitchforks and black, for Sebastian was as dark as a gipsy. ‘I am surprised, brother,’ he said, ‘that you can draw with such hands.’ ‘Why not?’ answered Sebastian; ‘are not my hands suitable?’ ‘Yes, but how can you execute any delicate work?’ ‘Why not?’ asked the artist. ‘Because you cannot have flexibility in the joints of your fingers.’ ‘Oh, that is nothing; is it then my hands which give me permission or forbid me to work? I am their master and they are my servants, and they are obedient to me.’ The Englishman smiled. ‘Are you able,’ said he, ‘to reproduce for us the sealed Angel?’ ‘Why not?’ answered he ‘am not one of those artists who are afraid of their task, but my task is afraid of me. I will make a copy which you will not be able to distinguish from the original.’ ‘All right,’ said Jacob; ‘as soon, as possible we will procure for you the real icon, but in the meanwhile, in order to show me what your powers are, I want you to paint for my wife an icon in the old Russian style, such a one as will please her.’ And what saint is the icon to be? ‘I don't know,’ said he, ‘I only know that whatever you paint it will be all the same if you only please her.’ ‘And when your wife prays to God what does she chiefly ask for?’ ‘I don't know, my good fellow, I really don't know, but I think probably she prays mostly for her children, that they may grow up to be good and honourable,’ Sebastian was thoughtful for a moment, and then answered, ‘Very well, I will paint in that style.’ ‘What do you mean by that style?’ ‘I imagine that a prayerful, contemplative countenance will most please your wife.’
“The Englishman ordered that all necessary materials were to be provided for him in his house, but Sebastian would not work there, but sat by the window in the little garret in Luke's lodging and began his work. And what he would paint, dear sirs, we could not imagine. As it was to be about children we thought that he would depict the Roman wonder-worker, to whom mothers prayed for offspring; or the massacre of the Innocents in Jerusalem, which is always pleasing to mothers who have lost their children, for there Rachel weeps with them for her children, and will not be comforted. But this wise painter realised that the Englishwoman had children and would not ask for offspring, but rather pray that they might grow up with all good moral qualities. He therefore painted a subject that would correspond with her desire. He chose for this a very small old board, a span long, and began to sketch out his creative design. First of all, of course, he rubbed it well with strong alabaster of Kasan, so that the surface was smooth and strong like ivory. Then he divided this surface into four equal parts, and in each part he sketched out a separate tiny icon, and between them, on the ivory, he placed a line of gold, thus making each icon smaller still, and then began to paint. In the first division he painted the birth of John the forerunner. There were eight figures and the new-born child in a chamber. In the second division was the birth of the holy Virgin Mary, six figures and the new-born child in a chamber. In the third the birth of the Saviour, and the stable and the manger, and the Virgin and Joseph standing by, and the Magi bringing offerings, and the woman Salome and herds of various beasts: oxen, sheep, goats, and asses, and a land bird forbidden to the Jews, which was painted to show that Christ was sent into the world for all mankind, not to the Jews, but by God, who created all things. In the fourth division was the birth of St. Nicholas, and also the saint as a youth, and chambers with many persons standing around. And the meaning of these scenes was to bring before the eyes of the spectator the parents of such goodly offspring; and the scenes were also wonderful as works of art, for the figures were no higher than a pin, and yet were full of life and movement. For instance, St. Anna, in the birth of the Virgin, as the Greek original has it, lies on a bed. Before her stand girls playing the timbrels; one holds gifts in her hands, another a small sun, and others have lights. One woman holds St. Anna up by the shoulders, Joachim watches in the upper chamber. The nurse washes the holy Virgin in a basin, while a maiden pours water out of a vessel into the basin. All the chambers are painted accurately as with a compass, the upper ones are greenish, but the lower ones are reddish. In this lower chamber sit Joachim and Anna on a throne, and Anna holds the holy Virgin on her knee, and around them are stone columns and golden network, and a wall snow-white and yellow.
“All this Sebastian painted in a wonderful way, and in every tiny countenance there was an expression of divine contemplation, and underneath the icon was written, ‘Goodly offspring,’ and he brought it to the English family. They looked at it, examined it closely, and each held it separately to observe it minutely. Never, they said, had they expected such imagination, and never had they heard of
THE SEALED ANGEL 89
such delicacy of microscopic painting. For even when they looked at it through a magnifying glass no fault could be found. And they gave Sebastian two hundred roubles for the icon, and said, ‘Can you paint still more minutely?’ Sebastian answered, ‘I can.’ Then said the Engisshman, ‘Paint my wife's picture on a ring.’ Then Sebastian said, ‘No, I cannot do that.’ ‘But why?’ ‘First of all, because I have not tried that branch of art, and secondly, I cannot lower my art in this way, for the traditions of our fathers do not allow it.’ ‘What nonsense is that?’ ‘No, it is not nonsense, for, from the blessed times of old, our fathers made this rule, and it is affirmed in the patriarchal writings, that he who devotes himself to the holy work of painting icons must not take the portraits of men, but only paint the holy icons.’ Then Jacob Jacobovitch said, ‘If I were to promise you three hundred roubles for it?’ ‘If you were to promise me five hundred thousand it would be all the same, I cannot do it.’ The Englishman smiled, and said laughingly to his wife, ‘How do you like hearing that he thinks it is lowering his art to paint your portrait?’ But he added in English to her, ‘Oh well, he is a good fellow,’ and at the last he added, ‘Now, my good men, you must take care not to forget or leave undone anything necessary for the result, now that we have decided to act together.’ We answered that we could not think of anything that would be likely to hinder our plan. ‘Now see,’ said he, ‘I will begin,’ and he went off to the Bishop with the request that he might have the setting of the Sealed Angel gilt and ornamented with a crown, in order to show his zeal for their religion. The Bishop would say neither Yea nor Nay; he neither granted nor refused. But Jacob Jacobovitch would not give up, and at last gained his point; and we waited like powder which might explode with the first touch of fire.
“You must remember that time had been running on since the beginning of my story, and that Christmas was now close at hand. But you must not think that Christmas there was like Christmas here. There the climate was most capricious; sometimes you kept the feast in wintry weather, and another time you did not know what would happen: it rained, it was damp. One day there was a slight frost and the next day there was a thaw; at one time the river was coated with thin ice and then it was swollen with rain as if it were a spring flood. In a word, it was a most changeable time, and indeed there they don't call it weather, but weathercock.
“In the year to which my story refers this changeableness was most annoying. Since I had returned with the artist I cannot count up how many times we were first in winter and then in summer. And in regard to our work it was most irritating, for we had already got finished the seven piers, and chains had been hung from one shore to the other. Of course the contractor was very anxious to connect these chains as soon as possible, in order that some kind of temporary bridge might be hung on them before the rising of the river, in order that materials might be carried. But this could not be accomplished, only the chains were stretched across; but then a severe frost came and bound everything so suddenly, it was impossible to pave even that temporary bridge. It was left in this state; the chains were there but not the bridge. But God gave us another bridge, and the Englishman crossed the Dnieper on the ice to inquire about our icon, and when he returned he told me and Luke, ‘To-morrow, children, be on the look-out, I will bring you your treasure,’ Sirs, you cannot imagine what we felt then! At first we thought we would keep it secret and only tell the artist, but we found it quite impossible to refrain from letting the others know. Instead therefore of making it a mystery we ran about spreading the news to all our people. We knocked at every window and we whispered it from one to another; we ran from one hut to another, for it was a beautiful bright night and the frost on the snow scattered diamonds everywhere, and the star Hesper shone in the clear sky. Having spent the night in this joyful bustle we greeted the day with eager expectation, and from early morning we could not leave the artist alone; we were ready to do anything for him: to carry his boots anywhere, for the hour was approaching when everything depended on his talent. He had only to ask for anything and we rushed away to get it for him. We were so eager that we knocked each other over. Even Grandfather Maroe ran so much that in stumbling he tore off the heel of his boot. Only the artist himself was calm, because this was not the first time he had had such work to do, and because he had quietly prepared everything. He had mixed the white of egg with kvass; he had examined the olive oil; he had prepared the canvas and the seasoned boards which were to be the height of the icon; he had got ready a sharp saw stretched like string in a bow. And he sat beside the window and rubbed on the palm of his hand the powders of those paints that he thought were likely to be wanted. And we all had a good wash and put on clean shirts, and stood on the shore looking at our city of refuge whence our radiant guest was to visit us, and our hearts beat now quick, now slow. Oh how long the day was while we waited from early morning till evening, when we suddenly saw the Englishman's sledge advancing over the ice from the town and coming straight to us! There was a wave of excitement; we all threw off our hats and prayed: ‘God the Father, with the Spirit and Angel, have mercy on Thy servants’ And with this prayer we all fell on our knees on the snow and stretched out our hands with yearning. Suddenly we heard the Englishman's voice: ‘Hi! you Old Believers, see what I have brought you!’ and he produced a small parcel wrapped in a white handkerchief.
“Luke took the parcel, and his heart sank within him. He felt that this was something too small and too light in weight. He opened a corner of the handkerchief and looked; this was only the setting of the icon torn from our Angel, but it was not the icon itself. We turned to the Englishman and told him with tears, ‘You are deceived; you were only given the silver setting, but the painting isn't there. But the Englishman was not now so well disposed to us as before. He was evidently weary of this long business, and he called out to us: ‘What a mess you make of things. You told me yourselves that I was to bring the setting, and I have got it for you, but you don't seem really to know what you want. Then, seeing that he was irritated, we began carefully to explain to him that we wanted the icon in order to make a copy of it; but he would not listen to us any longer but drove us away. And the only favour he showed us was to order the artist to be sent to him.
“The artist Sebastian went to him but he treated him in the same manner, with the same irritation. ‘Your peasants,’ said he, ‘don't know what they want. They asked for the setting in order to take dimensions, but now they require the icon itself to draw from. But I can do nothing more for them. The Bishop will not give up the picture. Paint the picture quickly; we will put it in the setting and take it back, and my secretary will substitute yours for the real icon.’
But Sebastian, like a wise man, calmed him with gentle speech and answered: ‘No,’ said he, ‘your honour, our peasants know what they are about, and we do indeed want the original icon. This is only done to annoy us; they say that we stencil our icon. There has been a certain type in the original which we are bound to follow, but the carrying out of the details is left to the artist. For instance, we must paint St. Zossima or Jerome with a lion, but the artist is allowed to exercise his fancy as to how the lion is to be represented. He must paint St. Neophyte with a dove, Timothy with a goblet, Gregory and Stralelata with lances; but every painter is free to portray these as his imagination suggests, and therefore I must know how this Angel was painted in order to be able to substitute my painting for the original.’
“The Englishman listened to all this, but drove away Sebastian as he had driven us, and there was no further help to be got from him. We sat by the river, dear sirs, like a row of crows, not knowing whether to despair altogether or to await something better; but we did not dare go to the Englishman, and indeed the weather began to be again very unusual: a dark thaw set in, there was heavy rain, and the sky at midday was as dark as thick smoke. At night it grew still darker, and the evening star, which in December is always above the horizon, was hidden and never shone out at all. Our souls seemed to be in prison; and thus was Christmas ushered in. On Christmas Eve the thunder growled, the lightning flashed, and for three days it poured incessantly. The snow melted everywhere and was carried into the river, and the ice in the river got blue and rose; and on the last day of the year it broke up and was carried down at a fearful pace, heaping floe on floe in the troubled stream, and rubbing against the works of our bridge. These mountains of ice leapt and screamed like demons, I might say. It was surprising that the piers of the bridge could stand all this unforeseen pressure. A million's worth of toil might be destroyed, but we gave no heed to that, because the artist Sebastian, seeing that there was no work for him here, was packing up and preparing to leave for some other district, and we could not prevail on him to stay.
“This fact did not trouble the Englishman, for this terrible weather had such an effect on him that he nearly went out of his mind, and he wandered about asking everyone, ‘What is to be done?’ And then suddenly he mastered his anxiety and sent for Luke, and said to him, ‘My good fellow, shall we go and steal your Angel?’ Luke answered, ‘Agreed,’ and observed that the Englishman seemed to wish to plunge into some dangerous adventure, for he proposed that he should go the next morning with the artist, who was to feign to be the goldsmith, and the Englishman would ask permission for the former to see the icon that he might make a sketch of it in order to make the setting; he would thus have a good look at the icon and be able to paint a copy on his return. Then when the real goldsmith had the setting ready it would be brought to us by the river, and Jacob Jacobovitch would go again to the monastery and say that he begged permission from the Bishop to attend his midnight Christmas Service; and he would go up to the altar in his cloak and stand in a dark corner by the crucifix, where our icon was kept near the window, and he would take it and hide it under the lappet of his cloak. Then he would take off his cloak as if he were too hot, and would entrust it to his man and tell him to take it away. As soon as the man was outside he would seize the icon from the cloak and run with it to the artist, who would then, while the service lasted, be able to take the painting of the old icon off its board and substitute the copy, fasten the setting on it and send it back, so that Jacob Jacobovttch could replace it as if nothing had happened. We said, ‘We agree to all this.’ ‘But,’ said he, ‘remember that I am taking the part of the thief, and how can I be sure that none of you will betray me?’
“Luke answered, ‘We are not the sort of folk to betray our benefactors; I will take the icon and bring you both back, the real one and the copy.’ ‘But suppose something hindered you?’ Luke said, ‘What could hinder me?’ ‘Well, you might die suddenly or be drowned.’ Luke was thoughtful. Why, he said to himself, should there be such an obstacle; but in fact it sometimes happens that in digging a well you may discover a treasure, but if you go to market you may meet a mad dog; and he answered, ‘In case that should happen, sir, I will place a man who, if I come to grief, will take all the blame on himself, and will endure death without betraying you.’ ‘And who is the man you are thinking of?’ ‘The blacksmith, Maroe,’ answered Luke. ‘That old man?’ ‘Yes, he is not young.’ ‘But he seems a stupid fellow.’ ‘In this case, sir, we don't want his intellect, but we want a man who has a worthy spirit.’ ‘And how can a stupid man have a worthy spirit?’ ‘The spirit,’ answered Luke, ‘does not depend upon the intellect; the spirit bloweth where it listeth: it is just like hair which grows long and thick with one man and scanty with another.’ The Englishman reflected and said, ‘Well, well, all this will be a very interesting experience, but how will he help me if I get into trouble?’ ‘This is how it will be,’ said Luke ‘you will stand by the window in the church, but Maroe will stand under the window outside, and if at the end of the service I do not appear with the icons, he will break the glass and slip in at the window, and take all the blame on himself.’
“The Englishman was much pleased with this plan. ‘Strange, strange,’ said he, ‘but how can I be sure that this stupid man of worthy spirit will not run away?’ ‘Well, sir, this is a case of mutual trust.’ ‘Yes, mutual trust. Yes, h'm! mutual trust, indeed; which is it to be? Shall I go to prison for a peasant, or will he suffer the knout for me? H'm, h'm! will he keep faith when he feels the whip?’
“Maroe was sent for and the plan was explained to him; and he just said, ‘Anything else to be done?’ and the English man asked, ‘And you won't run away?’ Maroe answered, ‘Why should I?’ ‘Lest they should flog you or send you to Siberia.’ But Maroe said, ‘I don't care,’ and would not talk the matter over. The Englishman was well pleased and grew quite lively. ‘Delightful,’ said he; ‘most interesting.’
“Immediately after this conversation we began to carry out our plan. We got the master's large boat, and rowed the Englishman to the shore by the town; from thence he took a carriage and drove to the monastery with the artist Sebastian, and in a little over an hour we saw the artist running towards us, with a sheet of paper in his hand, with a sketch of the icon. ‘Did you see our dear one?’ we asked, ‘and can you make a good copy of him?’ ‘I saw him,’ he replied, ‘and I will copy him, only perhaps the copy will be rather more vivid in colour, but there is no harm in that; when we get the real icon it will be easy to deaden the colours.’ ‘Try hard to paint, dear friend,’ we prayed. ‘Yes,’ he answered, ‘I will try hard.’ And when we had rowed him across, he set to work at once, and at dusk the Angel appeared on the canvas, as like to our Sealed Angel as two peas are to one another, only the colours were a little brighter. The goldsmith brought the plated setting that evening, as it had been ordered before.
“The most critical moment of our robbery drew near. Of course we had prepared everything; we had prayed, and were waiting for the appointed hour. As soon as the monastery's first bell rang for service, we three men seated ourselves in a small boat; I and Grandfather Maroe, and Uncle Luke. Maroe had brought with him an axe, a chisel, shears, and a rope, in order to look like a thief, and we struck out for the monastery grounds. At that time of year dusk, of course, came early, and night fell on us, very dark in spite of the full moon, a real night for a robbery. Having reached the shore, Maroe and Luke left me in the boat under the bank, while they crept up to the monastery. I laid up the oars in the boat and fastened it to the bank, and then waited impatiently, ready to start as soon as Luke should step on board. My anxiety was so great that the time seemed terribly long; how, I asked myself, will the plan succeed, and shall we be able to conceal the theft while the midnight service goes on? And I thought it was time to hear news. In the meanwhile the darkness increased, the wind howled, and instead of rain a damp snow fell; the boat began to rock in the wind, and I, wicked wretch, settled slowly down, wrapped in my coat, and began to doze. Then suddenly there was a jerk, the boat rocked; I started up and saw Uncle Luke had stepped in, and in an altered voice he said, ‘Row.’ I seized the oars, but in my terror could hardly place them in the rowlocks. With an effort I got them right and pushed off from the shore. Then I ventured to ask, ‘Have you got the Angel?’ ‘I have; row quicker.’ ‘Tell me,’ I begged, ‘how you managed?’
“‘Without hindrance, as it was arranged.’ ‘And can we return it in time?’ ‘We must succeed, for they have not yet read the Epistle. Row. Where are you rowing?’ I looked round: good heavens! I was not rowing in the right direction. I had kept, as appeared right, across the river's current, but our hamlet was not to be seen; this was because the wind was driving the snow into our eyes, and all round was rolling and roaring water, and the surface of the water breathed ice.
“But, thanks to the mercy of God, we did arrive, and both of us jumped out of the boat and ran home as fast as we could. The artist was ready, he acted coolly but steadily; first he took the icon in his hands, and as the people bowed down before it, he allowed everyone to approach and look at the sealed face, and he himself compared it with his copy and said, ‘Excellent! only now we must subdue the colours with a little dirt and saffron.’ He took the icon by the corner in a vice, then took the saw and it began to whiz quickly between the canvas and the board. We all stood round and dreaded lest a disaster should occur. It was wonderful! Can you imagine that with his enormous hands he sawed from a plank a thin piece of wood not thicker than a piece of cardboard. Here was danger of an accident. If the saw swerved a hair's-breadth aside, it would lacerate the face and make a hole through the canvas. But the painter Sebastian accomplished all this so coolly, and with such skill, that as we watched him our fears were allayed. And when he had sawn the picture to a thin layer then he took his copy and crumpled it up in his tight fist, and then beat it hard against the edge of the table and rasped it, as if he were going quite to spoil it, and at last he held up the canvas to the light, and behold! this new picture was full of chinks like a sieve. Then Sebastian took it and fastened it on to the old board, and he took some dark-coloured mud, and mixed it with old olive oil, and rubbed it all over the surface of the copy. He did this quickly, and the new icon soon looked as old as the real picture. All this oiling was done in a moment, and then our people fixed the plated setting of the icon, and the painter arranged the real icon on the board which had been prepared for it, and he asked for a piece of an old felt hat. Now began the most difficult business of removing the sealing-wax. They gave the painter an old felt hat; he at once tore off a piece and covering the sealed icon with it he called out, ‘Give me a hot iron.’ By his orders there was a heavy tailor's iron heating in the stove. Michaela hooked it out and handed it to Sebastian. He wrapped a cloth round his hand, spat upon the iron, and then drew it quickly across the felt. An evil smell rose up at once, but the painter went on two or three times ironing the felt. His hand flew like lightning, and the smoke went up in pillar from the felt. But Sebastian kept at it vigorously; with one hand he turned the felt about, and with the other he drove the hot iron, each time keeping it a second longer and pressing it harder, and suddenly he threw aside the iron and the felt, and held the icon up to the light—and the seal was gone! The genuine olive oil of Stroganov had withstood everything, and the sealing-wax had all disappeared, only leaving a soft rosy glow on the face, but the holy shining face was now visible. Then some prayed, some wept, some kissed the painter's hand, but Luke did not forget his task, and as every minute was precious he gave Sebastian the imitation icon and said, ‘Now finish this quickly.’ But the painter answered, ‘My work is finished; I have done all I undertook to do.’ ‘But now add the seal.’ ‘Where?’ ‘Why, on the Angel's face, to make it like the other one was.’ But Sebastian shook his head and answered, ‘No, I am not an official that I should dare to do such a thing.’ ‘But what can we do?’ ‘I don't know either what is to be done; you must get an official or a German to do this, but as you have not got them now you must do it yourselves.’ Luke said, ‘We should not dare to do that.’ The painter answered, ‘I cannot dare to seal it.’ At this we were much disturbed, when suddenly Jacob Jacobovitch's wife flew into the room, pale as death, and cried out, ‘What, are you not ready?’ We answered, ‘Ready, and yet not ready; the important work is done, but a trifle is hindering us.’ She said in her broken Russian, ‘What are you waiting for? Do you not hear the noise outside?’ We listened, and we grew paler than she was; we had been so busy that we had paid no attention to the weather, but now we heard a roar—the ice is coming! I rushed out and saw that the river was a field of ice; like wild beasts the floes jumped on each other, one after another they bounded, and roared and broke. I did not stop to think, but ran to the boats; not one was there, they had been carried away. My tongue was paralysed so that I could not speak, and my ribs gave way so that I nearly fell to the ground. I could not move; I could not cry out.
“But while we were all dumbfounded and in the dark, the Englishwoman, who was alone in the hut with Michaela, and knew what was troubling us, seized the icon, and in about a minute she returned to the steps with a lantern and called to us, ‘Take it; it is ready. We looked; there was a seal on the new Angel's face! Luke at once seized the icon and cried out, ‘A boat!’ I explained that there was no boat; it had been carried away. I must tell you that the ice was struggling like a troop of wild horses; it broke against the ice-breaker and shook the bridge violently, so that the chains, which were half as thick as boards, rattled loudly. When the Englishwoman heard this she threw up her arms, and in a voice unlike her own, screamed, ‘James,’ and fell down fainting. But we stood there and could only ask ourselves, ‘What will happen now to the Englishman; what will happen to Grandfather Maroe?’ And at that moment the monastery bell rung out for the third time. Uncle Luke suddenly roused himself and called out to the Englishwoman, ‘Cheer up, lady, your husband will be safe; only it may be that our old Grandfather Maroe may have his ancient skin tormented by the executioner, and his honest face disfigured with a brand, but that will only be after I am dead!’ And these words he crossed himself and set out. I called out, ‘Uncle Luke, where are you going? Levontia perished, and you will perish.’ And I followed him to try to keep him back, but he snatched up the oar under his feet, which I, on arriving, had thrown on the ground, and waving to me cried out, ‘Away with you or I will kill you.’
“I have already confessed to you, sir, in the former part of my story, what a coward I was when I left the dead youth Levontia on the ground and ran up a tree; but now, I assure you, the oar did not frighten me, and I should not have let Luke go alone, but—you may believe it or not, as you please—at the moment that I remembered the name of Levontia, I saw before me in the darkness the form of Levontia, and he warned me away with his hand. I was terrified and started back, and Luke stood already on the chain, and suddenly stepped firmly on it and called out through the noise of the storm, ‘Begin the anthem.’
“The leader of the choir, Aretha, was standing among us, and directly he heard this, he at once started, ‘I will open my mouth,’ and the others joined in, and we sang the anthem lustily against the roar of the storm; and Luke had no fear of death and walked on the chain. He crossed the first one quickly and then stepped on the second—but how fared he further? The darkness swallowed him up, he disappeared; was he still crossing or had he fallen, and had the cruel floes of ice engulfed him? We could not say; ought we to pray for his safety, or weep for the death of a strong and faithful soul?
“What was happening now on the other shore? The Very Rev. Bishop was conducting the midnight service in the large church, little thinking that a theft was then being carried out near the altar; our Englishman, Jacob Jacobovitch, was standing with the Bishop's consent in the chancel by the altar, and having stolen our Angel, sent it away, as had been arranged, wrapped in his cloak, and Luke had hurried away with it; Grandfather Maroe, faithful to his word, stood under the window outside, and waited for the moment when, if Luke did not return, the Englishman would leave, and Maroe would break through the window and slip in with his pickaxe and chisel, as if he were the real thief. The Englishman did not take his eyes off Maroe, and saw that he was punctual and standing obediently at his post; and the moment he observed that the Englishman had pressed his face against the window to look at him, he at once nodded his head as if to say, ‘The responsible thief is here.’
“Both were thus assured of the good faith of each other; but there was yet a third acting at the same time, on whom so much depended, and they did not know what he was doing at that moment. When the service was at last over, and as soon as the bells had rung their last peal, the Englishman gently opened the small window to let Maroe slip in, and he himself was on the point of leaving, when suddenly he saw Maroe turn away from him, and, no longer looking at him, Maroe fixed his eyes on the river and repeated eagerly, May God bring him over, may God bring him over! Then suddenly he started and cried out like a drunken man: ‘God has brought him, God has brought him!’ Then Jacob Jacobovitch was in great despair and thought: ‘Well, this is the end of it all, the silly old man has gone crazy and I am undone’; but looking closer he saw Maroe embracing Luke. Maroe said to Luke, ‘I saw you crossing on the chains, and you had lanterns.’ But Uncle Luke said, ‘I had no lanterns.’ ‘Whence then was the light?’ Luke answered, ‘I don't know, I saw no lights, but I ran as fast as I could, and I don't know how it was that I did not fall; it seemed as if someone held me up under both arms. Maroe said, ‘Those were Angels; I saw them, therefore I shall not live: I shall die to-day.’ Luke had no time to say more; he did not answer Maroe, but quickly gave both the icons to the Englishman through the window. He took them, but handed them back immediately. Why, he exclaimed, there is no seal! Luke said, ‘No seal?’ ‘Yes, no seal.’ Then Luke crossed himself and said, ‘It is all over; there is no time to alter things. The Angel of the Orthodox Church has done this wonder, and I know now why he did it.’
“Then Luke rushed into the church and pressed up to the altar where the Bishop was disrobing, and falling at his feet said: Thus and thus have I done; I am a sacrilegious man, order me to be put in chains and send me to prison. But the Bishop, as befitted his reputation, listened to the whole story and answered: ‘Now it has been made clear to you where the true Faith really is; you,’ said he, ‘by a deceitful trick took the seal off your Angel, but our Angel took the seal off himself, and brought you hither.’ Uncle Luke said: ‘I see, Reverend Father, and I tremble; send me quickly to prison.’ But the Bishop answered, as it behoved his authority, ‘By the power given me of God, I forgive and absolve thee, my son. Prepare in the morning to receive the most holy Body of Christ.’
I think, sirs, there is nothing more to tell you. The next day Luke Cyrilov and Uncle Maroe returned and said: ‘Fathers and Brothers, we have seen the glory of the Angel of the State Church, and her divine aspect in the benevolence of the Bishop, and have ourselves been anointed with her holy oil, and have this day at Mass received the Body and Blood of Christ. As I myself, ever since I was the guest of the hermit Pamba, had felt inclined to join in the prayers of all Russia, I called out for them all: ‘We agree with you, Uncle Luke, and so we shall all be gathered under one shepherd like lambs; and it was only then that we understood how or whither our Angel had led us, for at first our footsteps wandered, and then we were unsealed, thanks to the love of folk for one another, as has been shown in the events of this wonderful night.
The tale was ended: the listeners were silent. But at last one of them coughed, and observed that the whole story could be explained by natural causes—the dreams of Michaela; the vision which reassured her in her waking moment; the fall of the Angel, which might have been pushed over by a stray cat or dog. The death of Levontia could also be explained, as he was ill before he met Pamba; and in like manner all the coincidences could be explained in the words which at that time Pamba spoke in riddles.
It is also quite applicable, continued the speaker from the audience, that Luke was able to walk on the chains with an oar, for it is well known that the masons are very expert in walking and climbing wherever they want to go, and the oar would act as a balancing-pole; one can also understand why Maroe saw Luke with lights round him which he imagined were angels. When a man was under such a strain and chilled to the bone he might have seen anything, and it would not be surprising. I could even understand that Maroe fulfilled his prediction of dying that very day”—“And he did die,” interrupted Mark—“Very well then, and was there anything wonderful in an old man of eighty dying after the agitation he had undergone and the chill of the night? But there is one thing which is not clear to me; how could the seal disappear from the Angel after the English lady had sealed it?”
“But that is just what is quite simple,” said Mark gaily; and he described how soon afterwards he had found the seal between the picture and the setting.
“How could that have happened?” asked the listener.
“This was how it was,” answered Mark. “The lady also did not dare to spoil the face of the Angel by a seal, she therefore set the seal on a piece of paper, which she slipped under the edge of the setting. She managed this with great skill and adroitness, but when Luke carried the icons in his bosom they got shaken, and then the seal fell out.”
“Then the whole affair was simple and natural?”
“There are many who think that everything happened naturally; and not only educated gentlemen who understand these matters, but even our own brethren dispute about this and mock at us.
“But we do not dispute with those who use these arguments. As everyone believes, so let him judge; but for us it is all the same by what paths God seeks out a man and out of what vessel God gives him to drink, only let him quench his thirst together with those of his own country. But there—I see the carters are aroused and coming out from under the snow. They have evidently had a good rest and are starting directly; perhaps they will give me a lift. The night is gone; I have wearied you and taken you with me through many adventures. Now I have the honour to wish you a happy New Year, and forgive me, for Christ's sake, the roughness of my speech.
- The word reeza is not a frame, but the gold or silver plating put over part of the icon, leaving only the face and hands visible, but showing the outlines of the painting. The word “setting” will now be used for “reeza.”
- Acts vii. 43.