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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
"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
Then he disappeared among the tombstones.
Looking at the sky, I perceived the time to be about five
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,
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
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
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
"Give something for Christ's sake! Give in memory of your
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
"'Under this cross there lies buried the body of the respected
citizen and servant of God, Diomid Petrovitch Ussov,'" 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
Next, distending his ruddy cheeks, twitching his moustache, and
regarding me covertly out of boylike eyes, the Lieutenant
"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,
Upon this Virubov had remarked with a sigh, and in sluggish,
"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
"Take, for example, the working-woman who stands free of every
"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
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
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?"
In silence I nodded; whereupon he cried triumphantly:
"Ah! You see, do you? Yes, an indispensable point is it, that
whatsoever a man may have done, whether good or evil, should be
recorded. For example, suppose he has manufactured a stove
specially good for heating purposes; record the fact. Or
suppose he has killed a mad dog; record the fact. Or suppose he
has built a school, or cleansed a dirty street, or been a
pioneer in the teaching of sound farming, or striven, by word
and deed, his life long, to combat official irregularities...
record the fact. Again, suppose a woman has borne ten, or
fifteen, healthy children; record the fact. Yes, and this last
with particular care, since the conferment of healthy children
upon the country is a work of absolute importance."
Further, pointing to a grey headstone with a worn inscription,
he shouted (or almost did so):
"Under that stone lies buried the body of a man who never in
his life loved but one woman, but ONE woman. Now, THAT is a fact
which ought to have been recorded about him for it is not
merely a string of names that is wanted, but a narrative of
deeds. Yes, I have not only a desire, but a RIGHT, to know the
lives which men have lived, and the works which they have
performed; and whenever a man leaves our midst we ought to
inscribe over his tomb full particulars of the 'cross and
burden' which he bore, as particulars ever to be held in
remembrance, and inscribed there both for my benefit and for the
benefit of life in general, as constituting a clear and
circumstantial record of the given career. Why did that man
live? To the question write down, always, the answer in large
and conspicuous characters. Eh?"
This led the Lieutenant's enthusiasm to increase still more as,
for the third time waving his hand in the direction of the
tombs, and mouthing each word, he continued:
"The folk of that town are liars pure and simple, for of set
purpose they conceal the particulars of careers that they may
depreciate those careers in our eyes, and, while showing us the
insignificance of the dead, fill the living with a sense of
similar insignificance, since insignificant folk are the easiest
to manage. Yes, it is a scheme thought out with diabolical
ingenuity. Yet, for myself--well, try and make me do what I don't
intend to do!"
To which, with his face wrinkled with disgust, he added in a
tone like a shot from a pistol:
"Machines are we! Yes, machines, and nothing else!"
Curious was it to watch the old man's excitement as one listened
to the strong bass voice amid the stillness of the cemetery.
Once more over the tombs, there came floating the languid,
metallic notes of " N-n-o-u! N-n-o-u!"
The oily gloss on the withered grass had vanished, faded, and
everything turned dull, though the air remained charged with the
spring perfume of the geraniums, stocks, and narcissi which
encircled some of the graves.
"You see," continued the Lieutenant, "one could not deny that
each of us has his value. By the time that one has lived
threescore years, one perceives that fact very clearly. Never
CONCEAL things, since every life lived ought to be set in the
light. And is capable of being so, in that every man is a
workman for the world at large, and constitutes an instructor in
good or in evil, and that life, when looked into, constitutes,
as a whole, the sum of all the labour done by the aggregate of
us petty, insignificant individuals. That is why we ought not to
hide away a man's work, but to publish it abroad, and to
inscribe on the cross over his tomb his deeds, his services, in
their entirety. Yes, however negligible may have been those
deeds, those services, hold them up for the perusal of those who
can discover good even in what is negligible. NOW do you
"I do," I replied. "Yes, I do."
The bell of the monastery struck two hasty beats--then became
silent, so that only the sad echo of its voice remained
reverberating over the cemetery. Once more my interlocutor drew
out his cigarette-case, silently offered it to myself, and
lighted and puffed industriously at another cigarette. As he did
so his hands, as small and brown as the claws of a bird, shook a
little, and his head, bent down, looked like an Easter egg in
Still smoking, he looked me in the eyes with a self-diffident
frown, and muttered:
"Only through the labour of man does the earth attain
development. And only by familiarising himself with, and
remembering, the past can man obtain support in his work on
In speaking, the Lieutenant lowered his arm; whereupon on to his
wrist there slipped the broad golden bracelet adorned with a
medallion, and there gazed at me thence the miniature of a
fair-haired woman: and since the hand below it was freckled, and
its flexible fingers were swollen out of shape, and had lost
their symmetry, the woman's fine-drawn face looked the more full
of life, and, clearly picked out, could be seen to be smiling a
sweet and slightly imperious smile.
"Your wife or your daughter?" I queried.
"My God! My God!" was, with a subdued sigh, the only response
vouchsafed. Then the Lieutenant raised his arm, and the bracelet
slid back to its resting place under his cuff.
Over the town the columns of curling smoke were growing redder,
and the clattering windows blushing to a tint of pink that
recalled to my memory the livid cheeks of Virubov's "niece," of
the woman in whom, like her uncle, there was nothing that could
provoke one to "take liberties."
Next, there scaled the cemetery wall and stealthily stretched
themselves on the ground, so that they looked not unlike the
far-flung shadows of the cemetery's crosses, a file of dark,
tattered figures of beggars, while on the further side of the
slowly darkening greenery a cantor drawled in sluggish, careless
"Eternal memory of what?" exclaimed Lieutenant Khorvat with an
angry shrug of his shoulders. "Suppose, in his day, a man has
been the best cucumber-salter or mushroom-pickler in a given
town. Or suppose he has been the best cobbler there, or that
once he said something which the street wherein he dwelt can
still remember. Would not THAT man be a man whose record should
be preserved, and made accessible to my recollection?"
And again the Lieutenant's face wreathed itself in solid rings
of pungent tobacco smoke.
Blowing softly for a moment, the wind bent the long stems of
grass in the direction of the declining sun, and died away. All
that remained audible amid the stillness was the peevish voices
of women saying:
"To the left, I say."
"Oh, what is to be done, Tanechka?"
Expelling a fresh cloud of tobacco smoke in cylindrical form,
the old man muttered:
"It would seem that those women have forgotten the precise spot
where their relative or friend happens to lie buried."
As a hawk flew over the sun-reddened belfry-cross, the bird's
shadow glided over a memorial stone near the spot where we were
sitting, glanced off the corner of the stone, and appeared anew
beyond it. And in the watching of this shadow, I somehow found a
Went on the Lieutenant:
"I say that a graveyard ought to evince the victory of life,
the triumph of intellect and of labour, rather than the power of
death. However, imagine how things would work out under my
scheme. Under it the record of which I have spoken would
constitute a history of a town's life which, if anything, would
increase men's respect for their fellows. Yes, such a history as
THAT is what a cemetery ought to be. Otherwise the place is
useless. Similarly will the past prove useless if it can give us
nothing. Yet is such a history ever compiled? If it is, how can
one say that events are brought about by, forsooth, 'servants of
Pointing to the tombs with a gesture as though he were swimming,
he paused for a moment or two.
"You are a good man," I said, "and a man who must have lived a
good and interesting life."
He did not look at me, but answered quietly and thoughtfully:
"At least a man ought to be his fellows' friend, seeing that to
them he is beholden for everything that he possesses and for
everything that he contains. I myself have lived--"
Here, with a contraction of his brows, he fell to gazing about
him, as though he were seeking the necessary word; until,
seeming to fail to find it, he continued gravely:
"Men need to be brought closer together, until life shall have
become better adjusted. Never forget those who are departed,
for anything and everything in the life of a 'servant of God'
may prove instructive and of profound significance."
On the white sides of the memorial-stones, the setting sun was
casting warm lurid reflections, until the stonework looked as
though it had been splashed with hot blood. Moreover, every
thing around us seemed curiously to have swelled and grown
larger and softer and less cold of outline; the whole scene,
though as motionless as ever, appeared to have taken on a sort
of bright-red humidity, and deposited that humidity in purple,
scintillating, quivering dew on the turf's various spikes and
tufts. Gradually, also, the shadows were deepening and
lengthening, while on the further side of the cemetery wall a
cow lowed at intervals, in a gross and drunken fashion, and a
party of fowls cackled what seemed to be curses in response, and
a saw grated and screeched.
Suddenly the Lieutenant burst into a peal of subdued laughter,
and continued to do so until his shoulders shook. At length he
said through the paroxysms, as, giving me a push, he cocked his
"I must confess that, that--that the view which I first took of
you was rather a tragic one. You see, when I saw a man lying
prone on the grass I said to myself: 'H'm! What is that?' Next I
saw a young fellow roaming about the cemetery with a frown
settled on his face, and his breeches bulging; and again I said
"A book is lying in my breeches pocket," I interposed.
"Ah! Then I understand. Yes, I made a mistake, but a very,
welcome one. However, as I say, when I first saw you, I said to
myself: 'There is a man lying near that tomb. Perhaps he has a
bullet, a wound, in his temple?' And, as you know--"
He stopped to wink at me with another outburst of soft,
good-humoured laughter. Then he continued.
"Nevertheless, the scheme of which I have told you cannot really
be called a scheme, since it is merely a fancy of my own. Yet I
SHOULD like to see life lived in better fashion."
He sighed and paused, for evidently he was becoming lost in
"Unfortunately," he continued at last, "the latter is a desire
which I have conceived too late. If only I had done so fifteen
years ago, when I was filling the post of Inspector of the
prison at Usman--"
His left arm stretched itself out, and once more there slid on
to his wrist the bracelet. For a moment he touched its gold with
a rapid, but careful, delicate, movement--then he restored the
trinket to its retreat, rose suddenly, looked about him for a
second or two with a frown, and said in dry, brisk tones as he
gave his iron-grey moustache an energetic twist:
"Now I must be going."
For a while I accompanied him on his way, for I had a keen
desire to hear him say something more in that pleasant, powerful
bass of his; but though he stepped past the gravestones with
strides as careful and regular as those of a soldier on parade,
he failed again to break silence.
Just as we passed the chapel of the monastery there floated
forth into the fair evening stillness, from the bars, of a
window, while yet not really stirring that stillness, a hum of
gruff, lazy, peevish ejaculations. Apparently they were uttered
by two persons who were engaged in a dispute, since one of them
"What have you done? What have you done?"
And the other responded carelessly:
"Hold your tongue, now! Pray hold your tongue!"
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