In a town of the steppes where I found life exceedingly dull, the best and the brightest spot was the cemetery. Often did I use to walk there, and once it happened that I fell asleep on some thick, rich, sweet-smelling grass in a cradle-like hollow between two tombs.
From that sleep I was awakened with the sound of blows being struck against the ground near my head. The concussion of them jarred me not a little, as the earth quivered and tinkled like a bell. Raising myself to a sitting posture, I found sleep still so heavy upon me that at first my eyes remained blinded with unfathomable darkness, and could not discern what the matter was. The only thing that I could see amid the golden glare of the June sunlight was a wavering blur which at intervals seemed to adhere to a grey cross, and to make it give forth a succession of soft creaks.
Presently, however--against my wish, indeed--that wavering blur resolved itself into a little, elderly man. Sharp-featured, with a thick, silvery tuft of hair beneath his under lip, and a bushy white moustache curled in military fashion, on his upper, he was using the cross as a means of support as, with his disengaged hand outstretched, and sawing the air, he dug his foot repeatedly into the ground, and, as he did so, bestowed upon me sundry dry, covert glances from the depths of a pair of dark eyes.
"What have you got there?" I inquired.
"A snake," he replied in an educated bass voice, and with a rugged forefinger he pointed downwards; whereupon I perceived that wriggling on the path at his feet and convulsively whisking its tail, there was an echidna.
"Oh, it is only a grassworm," I said vexedly.
The old man pushed away the dull, iridescent, rope-like thing with the toe of his boot, raised a straw hat in salute, and strode firmly onwards.
"I thank you," I called out; whereupon, he replied without looking behind him:
"If the thing really WAS a grassworm, of course there was no danger."
Then he disappeared among the tombstones.
Looking at the sky, I perceived the time to be about five o'clock.
The steppe wind was sighing over the tombs, and causing long stems of grass to rock to and fro, and freighting the heated air with the silken rustling of birches and limes and other trees, and leading one to detect amid the humming of summer a note of quiet grief eminently calculated to evoke lofty, direct thoughts concerning life and one's fellow-men.
Veiling with greenery, grey and white tombstones worn with the snows of winter, crosses streaked with marks of rain, and the wall with which the graveyard was encircled, the rank vegetation served to also conceal the propinquity of a slovenly, clamorous town which lay coated with rich, sooty grime amid an atmosphere of dust and smells.
As I set off for a ramble among the tombs and tangled grass, I could discern through openings in the curtain of verdure a belfry's gilded cross which reared itself solemnly over crosses and memorials. At the foot of those memorials the sacramental vestment of the cemetery was studded with a kaleidoscopic sheen of flowers over which bees and wasps were so hovering and humming that the grass's sad, prayerful murmur seemed charged with a song of life which yet did not hinder reflections on death. Fluttering above me on noiseless wing were birds the flight of which sometimes made me start, and stand wondering whether the object before my gaze was really a bird or not: and everywhere the shimmer of gilded sunlight was setting the close-packed graveyard in a quiver which made the mounds of its tombs reminiscent of a sea when, after a storm, the wind has fallen, and all the green level is an expanse of smooth, foamless billows.
Beyond the wall of the cemetery the blue void of the firmament was pierced with smoky chimneys of oil-mills and soap factories, the roofs of which showed up like particoloured stains against the darker rags and tatters of other buildings; while blinking in the sunlight I could discern clatter-emitting, windows which looked to me like watchful eyes. Only on the nearer side of the wall was a sparse strip of turf dotted over with ragged, withered, tremulous stems, and beyond this, again, lay the site of a burnt building which constituted a black patch of earth-heaps, broken stoves, dull grey ashes, and coal dust. To heaven gaped the black, noisome mouths of burning-pits wherein the more economical citizens were accustomed nightly to get rid of the contents of their dustbins. Among the tall stems of steppe grass waved large, glossy leaves of ergot; in the sunlight splinters of broken glass sparkled as though they were laughing; and, from two spots in the dark brown plot which formed a semicircle around the cemetery, there projected, like teeth, two buildings the new yellow paint of which nevertheless made them look mean and petty amid the tangle of rubbish, pigweed, groundsel, and dock.
Indolently roaming hither and thither, a few speckled hens resembled female pedlars, and some pompous red cockerels a troupe of firemen; in the orifices of the burning-pits a number of mournful-eyed, homeless dogs were lying sheltered; among the shoots of the steppe scrub some lean cats were stalking sparrows; and a band of children who were playing hide-and-seek among the orifices above-mentioned presented, a pitiful sight as they went skipping over the filthy earth, disappearing in the crevices among the piles of heaped-up dirt.
Beyond the site of the burnt-out building there stretched a series of mean, close-packed huts which, crammed exclusively with needy folk, stood staring, with their dim, humble eyes of windows, at the crumbling bricks of the cemetery wall, and the dense mass of trees which that wall enclosed. Here, in one such hut, had I myself a lodging in a diminutive attic, which not only smelt of lamp-oil, but stood in a position to have wafted to it the least gasp or ejaculation on the part of my landlord, Iraklei Virubov, a clerk in the local treasury. In short, I could never glance out of the window at the cemetery on the other side of the strip of dead, burnt, polluted earth without reflecting that, by comparison, that cemetery was a place of sheer beauty, a place of ceaseless attraction.
And ever, that day, as though he had been following me, could there be sighted among the tombs the dark figure of the old man who had so abruptly awakened me from slumber; and since his straw hat reflected the sunlight as brilliantly as the disk of a sunflower as it meandered hither and thither, I, in my turn, found myself following him, though thinking, all the while, of Iraklei Virubov. Only a week was it since Iraklei's wife, a thin, shrewish, long-nosed woman with green and catlike eyes, had set forth on a pilgrimage to Kiev, and Iraklei had hastened to import into the hut a stout, squint-eyed damsel whom he had introduced to me as his " niece by marriage."
"She was baptised Evdokia," he had said on the occasion referred to. "Usually, however, I call her Dikanka. Pray be friendly with her, but remember, also, that she is not a person with whom to take liberties."
Large, round-shouldered, and clean-shaven like a chef, Virubov was for ever hitching up breeches which had slipped from a stomach ruined with surfeits of watermelon. And always were his fat lips parted as though athirst, and perpetually had he in his colourless eyes an expression of insatiable hunger.
One evening I overheard a dialogue to the following effect.
"Dikanka, pray come and scratch my back. Yes, between the shoulder-blades. O-o-oh, that is it. My word, how strong you are!"
Whereat Dikanka had laughed shrilly. And only when I had moved my chair, and thrown down my book, had the laughter and unctuous whispering died away, and given place to a whisper of:
"Holy Father Nicholas, pray for us unto God! Is the supper kvas ready, Dikanka?"
And softly the pair had departed to the kitchen--there to grunt and squeal once more like a couple of pigs....
The old man with the grey moustache stepped over the turf with the elastic stride of youth, until at length he halted before a large monument in drab granite, and stood reading the inscription thereon. Featured not altogether in accordance with the Russian type, he had on a dark-blue jacket, a turned-down collar, and a black stock finished off with a large bow--the latter contrasting agreeably with the thick, silvery, as it were molten, chin-tuft. Also, from the centre of a fierce moustache there projected a long and gristly nose, while over the grey skin of his cheeks there ran a network of small red veins. In the act of raising his hand to his hat (presumably for the purpose of saluting the dead), he, after conning the dark letters of the inscription on the tomb, turned a sidelong eye upon myself; and since I found the fact embarrassing, I frowned, and passed onward, full, still, of thoughts of the street where I was residing and where I desired to fathom the mean existence eked out by Virubov and his "niece."
As usual, the tombs were also being patrolled by Pimesha, otherwise Pimen Krozootov, a bibulous, broken-down ex-merchant who used to spend his time in stumbling and falling about the graves in search of the supposed resting-place of his wife. Bent of body, Pimesha had a small, bird-like face over-grown with grey down, the eyes of a sick rabbit, and, in general, the appearance of having undergone a chewing by a set of sharp teeth. For the past three years he had thus been roaming the cemetery, though his legs were too weak to support his undersized, shattered body; and whenever he caught his foot he fell, and for long could not rise, but lay gasping and fumbling among the grass, and rooting it up, and sniffing with a nose as sharp and red as though the skin had been flayed from it. True, his wife had been buried at Novotchevkassk, a thousand versts away, but Pimen refused to credit the fact, and always, on being told it, stuttered with much blinking of his wet, faded eyes: "Natasha? Natasha is here."
Also, there used to visit the spot, well-nigh daily, a Madame Christoforov, a tall old lady who, wearing black spectacles and a plain grey, shroudlike dress that was trimmed with black velvet, never failed to have a stick between her abnormally long fingers. Wizened of face, with cheeks hanging down like bags, and a knot of grey, rather, grey-green, hair combed over her temples from under a lace scarf, and almost concealing her ears, this lady pursued her way with deliberation, and entire assurance, and yielded the path to no one whom she might encounter. I have an idea that there lay buried there a son who had been killed in a roisterers' brawl.
Another habitual visitor was thin-legged, short-sighted Aulic Councillor Praotzev, ex-schoolmaster. With a book stuffed into the pocket of his canvas pea-jacket, a white umbrella grasped in his red hand, and a smile extending to ears as sharp and pointed as a rabbit's, he could, any Sunday after dinner, be seen skipping from tomb to tomb, with his umbrella brandished like a white flag soliciting terms of peace with death.
And, on returning home before the bell rang for Vespers, he would find that a crowd of boys had collected outside his garden wall; whereupon, dancing about him like puppies around a stork, they would fall to shouting in various merry keys:
"The Councillor, the Councillor! Who was it that fell in love with Madame Sukhinikh, and then fell into the pond? "
Losing his temper, and opening a great mouth, until he looked like an old rook which is about to caw, the Councillor would stamp his foot several times, as though preparing to dance to the boys' shouting, and lower his head, grasp his umbrella like a bayonet, and charge at the lads with a panting shout of:
"I'll tell your fathers! Oh, I'll tell your mothers!"
As for the Madame Sukhinikh, referred to, she was an old beggar-woman who, the year round, and in all weathers, sat on a little bench beside the cemetery wicket, and stuck to it like a stone. Her large face, a face rendered bricklike by years of inebriety, was covered with dark blotches born of frostbite, alcoholic inflammation, sunburn, and exposure to wind, and her eyes were perpetually in a state of suppuration. Never did anyone pass her but she proffered a wooden cup in a suppliant hand, and cried hoarsely, rather as though she were cursing the person concerned:
"Give something for Christ's sake! Give in memory of your kinsfolk there!"
Once an unexpected storm blew in from the steppes, and brought a downpour which, overtaking the old woman on her way home, caused her, her sight being poor, to fall into a pond, whence Praotzev attempted to rescue her, and into which, in the end, he slipped himself. From that day onwards he was twitted on the subject by the boys of the town.
Other frequenters of the cemetery I see before me--dark, silent figures, figures of persons whom still unsevered cords of memory seemed to have bound to the place for the rest of their lives, and compelled to wander, like unburied corpses, in quest of suitable tombs. Yes, they were persons whom life had rejected, and death, as yet, refused to accept.
Also, at times there would emerge from the long grass a homeless dog with large, sullen eyes, eyes startling at once in their intelligence and in their absolute Ishmaelitism-- until one almost expected to hear issue from the animal's mouth reproaches couched in human language.
And sometimes the dog would still remain halted in the cemetery as, with tail lowered, it swayed its shelterless, shaggy head to and fro with an air of profound reflection, while occasionally venting a subdued, long-drawn yelp or howl.
Again, among the dense old lime trees, there would be scurrying an unseen mob of starlings and jackdaws whose young would, meanwhile, maintain a soft, hungry piping, a sort of gently persuasive, chirruping chorus; until in autumn, when the wind had stripped bare the boughs, these birds' black nests would come to look like mouldy, rag-swathed heads of human beings which someone had torn from their bodies and flung into the trees, to hang for ever around the white, sugarloaf-shaped church of the martyred St. Barbara. During that autumn season, indeed, everything in the cemetery's vicinity looked sad and tarnished, and the wind would wail about the place, and sigh like a lover who has been driven mad through bereavement . . . .
Suddenly the old man halted before me on the path, and, sternly extending a hand towards a white stone monument near us, read aloud:
"'Under this cross there lies buried the body of the respected citizen and servant of God, Diomid Petrovitch Ussov,'" etc., etc.
Whereafter the old man replaced his hat, thrust his hands into the pockets of his pea-jacket, measured me with eyes dark in colour, but exceptionally clear for his time of life, and said:
"It would seem that folk could find nothing to say of this man beyond that he was a 'servant of God.' Now, how can a servant be worthy of honour at the hand of 'citizens'?"
"Possibly he was an ascetic," was my hazarded conjecture; whereupon the old man rejoined with a stamp of his foot:
"Then in such case one ought to write--"
"To write what?"
"To write EVERYTHING, in fullest possible detail."
And with the long, firm stride of a soldier my interlocutor passed onwards towards a more remote portion of the cemetery--myself walking, this time, beside him. His stature placed his head on a level with my shoulder only, and caused his straw hat to conceal his features. Hence, since I wished to look at him as he discoursed, I found myself forced to walk with head bent, as though I had been escorting a woman.
"No, that is not the way to do it," presently he continued in the soft, civil voice of one who has a complaint to present. "Any such proceeding is merely a mark of barbarism--of a complete lack of observation of men and life."
With a hand taken from one of his pockets, he traced a large circle in the air.
"Do you know the meaning of that?" he inquired.
"Its meaning is death," was my diffident reply, made with a shrug of the shoulders.
A shake of his head disclosed to me a keen, agreeable, finely cut face as he pronounced the following Slavonic words:
"'Smertu smert vsekonechnie pogublena bwist.'" [Death hath been for ever overthrown by death."]
"Do you know that passage?" he added presently.
Yet it was in silence that we walked the next ten paces--he threading his way along the rough, grassy path at considerable speed. Suddenly he halted, raised his hat from his head, and proffered me a hand.
"Young man," he said, "let us make one another's better acquaintance. I am Lieutenant Savva Yaloylev Khorvat, formerly of the State Remount Establishment, subsequently of the Department of Imperial Lands. I am a man who, after never having been found officially remiss, am living in honourable retirement--a man at once a householder, a widower, and a person of hasty temper."
Then, after a pause, he added:
"Vice-Governor Khorvat of Tambov is my brother--a younger brother; he being fifty-five, and I sixty-one, si-i-ixty one."
His speech was rapid, but as precise as though no mistake was permissible in its delivery.
"Also," he continued, "as a man cognisant of every possible species of cemetery, I am much dissatisfied with this one. In fact, never satisfied with such places am I."
Here he brandished his fist in the air, and described a large arc over the crosses.
"Let us sit down," he said, "and I will explain things."
So, after that we had seated ourselves on a bench beside a white oratory, and Lieutenant Khorvat had taken off his hat, and with a blue handkerchief wiped his forehead and the thick silvery hair which bristled from the knobs of his scalp, he continued:
"Mark you well the word kladbistche." [The word, though customarily used for cemetery, means, primarily, a treasure-house.] Here he nudged me with his elbow--continuing, thereafter, more softly: "In a kladbisiche one might reasonably look for kladi, for treasures of intellect and enlightenment. Yet what do we find? Only that which is offensive and insulting. All of us does it insult, for thereby is an insult paid to all who, in life, are bearing still their 'cross and burden.' You too will, one day, be insulted by the system, even as shall I. Do you understand? I repeat, 'their cross and burden'--the sense of the words being that, life being hard and difficult, we ought to honour none but those who STILL are bearing their trials, or bearing trials for you and me. Now, THESE folk here have ceased to possess consciousness."
Each time that the old man waved his hat in his excitement, its small shadow, bird-like, flew along the narrow path, and over the cross, and, finally, disappeared in the direction of the town.
Next, distending his ruddy cheeks, twitching his moustache, and regarding me covertly out of boylike eyes, the Lieutenant resumed:
"Probably you are thinking, 'The man with whom I have to deal is old and half-witted.' But no, young fellow; that is not so, for long before YOUR time had I taken the measure of life. Regard these memorials. ARE they memorials? For what do they commemorate as concerns you and myself? They commemorate, in that respect, nothing. No, they are not memorials; they are merely passports or testimonials conferred upon itself by human stupidity. Under a given cross there may lie a Maria, and under another one a Daria, or an Alexei, or an Evsei, or someone else--all 'servants of God,' but not otherwise particularised. An outrage this, sir! For in this place folk who have lived their difficult portion of life on earth are seen robbed of that record of their existences, which ought to have been preserved for your and my instruction. Yes, A DESCRIPTION OF THE LIFE LIVED BY A MAN is what matters. A tomb might then become even more interesting than a novel. Do you follow me?"
"Not altogether," I rejoined.
He heaved a very audible sigh.
"It should be easy enough," was his remark. "To begin with, I am NOT a 'servant of God.' Rather, I am a man intelligently, of set purpose, keeping God's holy commandments so far as lies within my power. And no one, not even God, has any right to demand of me more than I can give. That is so, is it not?"
"There!" the Lieutenant cried briskly as, cocking his hat, he assumed a still more truculent air. Then, spreading out his hands, he growled in his flexible bass:
"What is this cemetery? It is merely a place of show."
At this moment, for some reason or another, there occurred to me an incident which involved the figure of Iraklei Virubov, the figure which had carpet slippers on its ponderous feet, thick lips, a greedy mouth, deceitful eyes, and a frame so huge and cavernous that the dapper little Lieutenant could have stepped into it complete.
The day had been a Sunday, and the hour eventide. On the burnt plot of ground some broken glass had been emitting a reddish gleam, shoots of ergot had been diffusing their gloss, children shouting at play, dogs trotting backwards and forwards, and all things, seemingly, faring well, sunken in the stillness of the portion of the town adjoining the rolling, vacant steppe, with, above them, only the sky's level, dull-blue canopy, and around them, only the cemetery, like an island amidst a sea.
With Virubov, I had been sitting on a bench near the wicket-gate of his hut, as intermittently he had screwed his lecherous eyes in the direction of the stout, ox-eyed lacemaker, Madame Ezhov, who, after disposing of her form on a bank hard-by, had fallen to picking lice out of the curls of her eight-year-old Petka Koshkodav. Presently, as swiftly she had rummaged the boy's hair with fingers grown used to such rapid movement, she had said to her husband (a dealer in second-hand articles), who had been seated within doors, and therefore rendered invisible--she had said with oily derision:
"Oh, yes, you bald-headed old devil, you! Of course you got your price. Ye-es. Then, fool, you ought to have had a slipper smacked across that Kalmuck snout of yours. Talk of my price, indeed!"
Upon this Virubov had remarked with a sigh, and in sluggish, sententious tones:
"To grant the serfs emancipation was a sheer mistake. I am a humble enough servant of my country, yet I can see the truth of what I have stated, since it follows as a matter of course. What ought to have been done is that all the estates of the landowners should have been conveyed to the Tsar. Beyond a doubt that is so. Then both the peasantry and the townsfolk, the whole people, in short, would have had but a single landlord. For never can the people live properly so long as it is ignorant of the point where it stands; and since it loves authority, it loves to have over it an autocratic force, for its control. Always can it be seen seeking such a force."
Then, bending forward, and infusing into each softly uttered word a perfect lusciousness of falsity, Virubov had added to his neighbour:
"Take, for example, the working-woman who stands free of every tie."
"How do I stand free of anything?" the neighbour had retorted, in complete readiness for a quarrel.
"Oh, I am not speaking in your despite, Pavlushka, but to your credit," hastily Virubov had protested.
"Then keep your blandishments for that heifer, your 'niece,'" had been Madame Ezhov's response.
Upon this Virubov had risen heavily, and remarked as he moved away towards the courtyard:
"All folk need to be supervised by an autocratic eye."
Thereafter had followed a bout of choice abuse between his neighbour and his " niece,"while Virubov himself, framed in the wicket-gate, and listening to the contest, had smacked his lips as he gazed at the pair, and particularly at Madame Ezhov. At the beginning of the bout Dikanka had screeched:
"It is my opinion, it is my opinion, that--"
"Don't treat me to any of YOUR slop!" the long-fanged Pavla had interrupted for the benefit of the street in general. And thus had the affair continued....
Lieutenant Khorvat blew the fag-end of his cigarette from his mouthpiece, glanced at me, and said with seemingly, a not over-civil, twitch of his bushy moustache:
"Of what are you thinking, if I might inquire?"
"I am trying to understand you."
"You ought not to find that difficult," was his rejoinder as again he doffed his hat, and fanned his face with it. "The whole thing may be summed up in two words. It is that we lack respect both for ourselves and for our fellow men. Do you follow me NOW?"
His eyes had grown once more young and clear, and, seizing my hand in his strong and agreeably warm fingers, he continued:
"Why so? For the very simple reason that I cannot respect myself when I can learn nothing, simply nothing, about my fellows."
Moving nearer to me, he added in a mysterious undertone:
"In this Russia of ours none of us really knows why he has come into existence. True, each of us knows that he was born, and that he is alive, and that one day he will die; but which of us knows the reason why all that is so?"
Through renewed excitement, its colour had come back to the Lieutenant's face, and his gestures became so rapid as to cause the ring on his finger to flash through the air like the link of a chain. Also, I was able to detect the fact that on the small, neat wrist under his left cuff, there was a bracelet finished with a medallion.
"All this, my good sir, is because (partially through the fact that men forget the point, and partially through the fact that that point fails to be understood aright) the WORK done by a man is concealed from our knowledge. For my own part, I have an idea, a scheme--yes, a scheme--in two words, a, a--"
"N-n-o-u, n-n-o-u!" the bell of the monastery tolled over the tombs in languid, chilly accents.
"--a scheme that every town and every village, in fact, every unit of homogeneous population, should keep a record of the particular unit's affairs, a, so to speak, 'book of life.' This 'book of life' should be more than a list of the results of the unit's labour; it should also be a living narrative of the workaday activities accomplished by each member of the unit. Eh? And, of course, the record to be compiled without official interference--solely by the town council or district administration, or by a special 'board, of life and works' or some such body, provided only that the task be not carried out by nominees of the GOVERNMENT. And in that record there should be entered everything--that is to say, everything of a nature which ought to be made public concerning every man who has lived among us, and has since gone from our midst."
Here the Lieutenant stretched out his hand again in the direction of the tombs.
"My right it is," he added, "to know how those folk there spent their lives. For it is by their labours and their thoughts, and even on the product of their bones, that I myself am now subsisting. You agree, do you not?"...
from 'Through Russia' collection