Two Old Men
by Leo Tolstoy
Translated by Louise and Aylmer Maude.
‘The woman saith unto him, Sir, I perceive that thou art a prophet. Our fathers worshipped in this mountain; and ye say, that in Jerusalem is the place where men ought to worship. Jesus saith unto her, Woman, believe me, the hour cometh when neither in this mountain, nor in Jerusalem, shall ye worship the Father . . . But the hour cometh, and now is, when the true worshippers shall worship the Father in spirit and truth: for such doth the Father seek to be his worshippers.’—John iv. 19-21, 23.
There were once two old men who decided to go on a pilgrimage to worship God at Jerusalem. One of them was a well-to-do peasant named Efím Tarásitch Shevélef. The other, Elisha Bódrof, was not so well off.
Efím was a staid man, serious and firm. He neither drank nor smoked nor took snuff, and had never used bad language in his life. He had twice served as village Elder, and when he left office his accounts were in good order. He had a large family: two sons and a married grandson, all living with him. He was hale, long-bearded and erect, and it was only when he was past sixty that a little grey began to show itself in his beard.
Elisha was neither rich nor poor. He had formerly gone out carpentering, but now that he was growing old he stayed at home and kept bees. One of his sons had gone away to find work, the other was living at home. Elisha was a kindly and cheerful old man. It is true he drank sometimes, and he took snuff, and was fond of singing, but he was a peaceable man, and lived on good terms with his family and with his neighbours. He was short and dark, with a curly beard, and, like his patron saint Elisha, he was quite bald-headed.
The two old men had taken a vow long since and had arranged to go on a pilgrimage to Jerusalem together: but Efím could never spare the time; he always had so much business on hand; as soon as one thing was finished he started another. First he had to arrange his grandson’s marriage; then to wait for his youngest son’s return from the army, and after that he began building a new hut.
One holiday the two old men met outside the hut and, sitting down on some timber, began to talk.
‘Well,’ asked Elisha, ‘when are we to fulfil our vow?’
Efím made a wry face.
‘We must wait,’ he said. ‘This year has turned out a hard one for me. I started building this hut thinking it would cost me something over a hundred roubles, but now it’s getting on for three hundred and it’s still not finished. We shall have to wait tin the summer. In summer, God willing, we will go without fail.’
‘It seems to me we ought not to put it off, but should go at once,’ said Elisha. ‘Spring is the best time.’
‘The time’s right enough, but what about my building? How can I leave that?’
‘As if you had no one to leave in charge! Your son can look after it.’
‘But how? My eldest son is not trustworthy — he sometimes takes a glass too much.’
‘Ah, neighbour, when we die they’ll get on without us. Let your son begin now to get some experience.’
‘That’s true enough, but somehow when one begins a thing one likes to see it done.’
‘Eh, friend, we can never get through all we have to do. The other day the women-folk at home were washing and house cleaning for Easter. Here something needed doing, there something else, and they could not get everything done. So my eldest daughter-in-law, who’s a sensible woman, says: ‘We may be thankful the holiday comes without waiting for us, or however hard we worked we should never be ready for it.’
Efím became thoughtful.
‘I’ve spent a lot of money on this building,’ he said ‘and one can’t start on the journey with empty pockets. We shall want a hundred roubles apiece — and it’s no small sum.’
‘Now, come, come, old friend!’ he said, ‘you have ten times as much as I, and yet you talk about money. Only say when we are to start, and though I have nothing now I shall have enough by then.’
Efím also smiled.
‘Dear me, I did not know you were so rich!’ said he. ‘Why, where will you get it from?’
‘I can scrape some together at home, and if that’s not enough, I’ll sell half a score of hives to my neighbour. He’s long been wanting to buy them.’
‘If they swarm well this year, you’ll regret it.’
‘Regret it! Not I, neighbour! I never regretted anything in my life, except my sins. There’s nothing more precious than the soul.’
‘That’s so; still it’s not right to neglect things at home.’
‘But what if our souls are neglected? That’s worse. We took the vow, so let us go! Now, seriously, let us go!’
Elisha succeeded in persuading his comrade. In the morning, after thinking it well over, Efím came to Elisha.
‘You are right,’ said he, ‘let us go. Life and death are in God’s hands. We must go now, while we are still alive and have the strength.’
A week later the old men were ready to start. Efím had money enough at hand. He took a hundred roubles himself, and left two hundred with his wife.
Elisha, too, got ready. He sold ten hives to his neighbour, with any new swarms that might come from them before the summer. He took seventy roubles for the lot. The rest of the hundred roubles he scraped together from the other members of his household, fairly clearing them all out. His wife gave him all she had been saving up for her funeral; and his daughter-in-law also gave him what she had.
Efím gave his eldest son definite orders about every thing: when and how much grass to mow, where to cart the manure, and how to finish off and roof the cottage. He thought out everything, and gave his orders accordingly. Elisha, on the other hand, only explained to his wife that she was to keep separate the swarms from the hives he had sold, and to be sure to let the neighbour have them all, without any tricks. As to household affairs, he did not even mention them.
‘You will see what to do and how to do it, as the needs arise,’ he said. ‘You are the masters, and will know how to do what’s best for yourselves.’
So the old men got ready. Their people baked them cakes, and made bags for them, and cut them linen for leg-bands.They put on new leather shoes, and took with them spare shoes of platted bark. Their families went with them to the end of the village and there took leave of them, and the old men started on their pilgrimage.
Elisha left home in a cheerful mood, and as soon as he was out of the village forgot all his home affairs. His only care was how to please his comrade, how to avoid saying a rude word to any one, how to get to his destination and home again in peace and love. Walking along the road, Elisha would either whisper some prayer to himself or go over in his mind such of the lives of the saints as he was able to remember. When he came across any one on the road, or turned in anywhere for the night, he tried to behave as gently as possible and to say a godly word. So he journeyed on, rejoicing. One thing only he could not do, he could not give up taking snuff. Though he had left his snuff-box behind, he hankered after it. Then a man he met on the road gave him some snuff; and every now and then he would lag behind (not to lead his comrade into temptation) and would take a pinch of snuff.
Efím too walked well and firmly; doing no wrong and speaking no vain words, but his heart was not so light. Household cares weighed on his mind. He kept worrying about what was going on at home. Had he not forgotten to give his son this or that order? Would his son do things properly? If he happened to see potatoes being planted or manure carted, as he went along, he wondered if his son was doing as he had been told. And he almost wanted to turn back and show him how to do things, or even do them himself.
The old men had been walking for five weeks, they had worn out their home-made bark shoes, and had to begin buying new ones when they reached Little Russia.From the time they left home they had had to pay for their food and for their night’s lodging, but when they reached Little Russia the people vied with one another in asking them into their huts. They took them in and fed them, and would accept no payment; and more than that, they put bread or even cakes into their bags for them to eat on the road.
The old men travelled some five hundred miles in this manner free of expense, but after they had crossed the next province, they came to a district where the harvest had failed. The peasants still gave them free lodging at night, but no longer fed them for nothing. Sometimes, even, they could get no bread: they offered to pay for it, but there was none to be had. The people said the harvest had completely failed the year before. Those who had been rich were ruined and had had to sell all they possessed; those of moderate means were left destitute, and those of the poor who had not left those parts, wandered about begging, or starved at home in utter want. In the winter they had had to eat husks and goosefoot.
One night the old men stopped in a small village; they bought fifteen pounds of bread, slept there, and started before sunrise, to get well on their way before the heat of the day. When they had gone some eight miles, on coming to a stream they sat down, and, filling a bowl with water, they steeped some bread in it, and ate it. Then they changed their leg-bands, and rested for a while. Elisha took out his snuff-box. Efím shook his head at him.
‘How is it you don’t give up that nasty habit?’ said he.
Elisha waved his hand. ‘The evil habit is stronger than I,’ he said.
Presently they got up and went on. After walking for nearly another eight miles, they came to a large village and passed right through it. It had now grown hot. Elisha was tired out and wanted to rest and have a drink, but Efím did not stop. Efím was the better walker of the two, and Elisha found it hard to keep up with him.
‘If I could only have a drink,’ said he.
‘Well, have a drink,’ said Efím. ‘I don’t want any.’
‘You go on,’ he said, ‘but I’ll just run in to the little hut there. I will catch you up in a moment.’
‘All right,’ said Efím, and he went on along the high road alone, while Elisha turned back to the hut.
It was a small hut plastered with clay, the bottom a dark colour, the top whitewashed; but the clay had crumbled away. Evidently it was long since it had been re-plastered, and the thatch was off the roof on one side. The entrance to the hut was through the yard. Elisha entered the yard, and saw, lying close to a bank of earth that ran round the hut, a gaunt, beardless man with his shirt tucked into his trousers, as is the custom in Little Russia.The man must have lain down in the shade, but the sun had come round and now shone full on him. Though not asleep, he still lay there. Elisha called to him, and asked for a drink, but the man gave no answer.
‘He is either ill or unfriendly,’ thought Elisha; and going to the door he heard a child crying in the hut. He took hold of the ring that served as a door-handle, and knocked with it.
‘Hey, masters!’ he called. No answer. He knocked again with his staff.
‘Hey, Christians!’ Nothing stirred.
‘Hey, servants of God!’ Still no reply.
Elisha was about to turn away, when he thought ho heard a groan the other side of the door.
‘Dear me, some misfortune must have happened to the people? I had better have a look.’
And Elisha entered the hut.
Elisha turned the ring; the door was not fastened. He opened it and went along up the narrow passage. The door into the dwelling-room was open. To the left was a brick oven; in front against the wall was an icon-standand a table before it, by the table was a bench on which sat an old woman, bareheaded and wearing only a single garment. There she sat with her head resting on the table, and near her was a thin, wax-coloured boy, with a protruding stomach. He was asking for something, pulling at her sleeve, and crying bitterly. Elisha entered. The air in the hut was very foul. He looked round, and saw a woman lying on the floor behind the oven: she lay flat on the ground with her eyes closed and her throat rattling, now stretching out a leg, now dragging it in, tossing from side to side; and the foul smell came from her. Evidently she could do nothing for herself and no one had been attending to her needs. The old woman lifted her head, and saw the stranger.
‘What do you want?’ said she.’ What do you want man? We have nothing.’
Elisha understood her, though she spoke in the Little-Russian dialect.
‘I came in for a drink of water, servant of God,’ he said.
‘There’s no one—no one—we have nothing to fetch it in. Go your way.’
Then Elisha asked:
‘Is there no one among you, then, well enough to attend to that woman?’
‘No, we have no one. My son is dying outside, and we are dying in here.’
The little boy had ceased crying when he saw the stranger, but when the old woman began to speak, he began again, and clutching hold of her sleeve cried:
‘Bread, Granny, bread.’
Elisha was about to question the old woman, when the man staggered into the hut. He came along the passage, clinging to the wall, but as he was entering the dwelling-room he fell in the corner near the threshold, and without trying to get up again to reach the bench, he began to speak in broken words. He brought out a word at a time, stopping to draw breath, and gasping.
‘Illness has seized us . . . ,’ said he, ‘and famine. He is dying . . . of hunger.’
And he motioned towards the boy, and began to sob.
Elisha jerked up the sack behind his shoulder and pulling the straps off his arms, put it on the floor. Then he lifted it on to the bench, and untied the strings. Having opened the sack, he took out a loaf of bread, and, cutting off a piece with his knife, handed it to the man. The man would not take it, but pointed to the little boy and to a little girl crouching behind the oven, as if to say:
‘Give it to them.’
Elisha held it out to the boy. When the boy smelt bread, he stretched out his arms, and seizing the slice with both his little hands, bit into it so that his nose disappeared in the chunk. The little girl came out from behind the oven and fixed her eyes on the bread. Elisha gave her also a slice. Then he cut off another piece and gave it to the old woman, and she too began munching it.
‘If only some water could be brought,’ she said, ‘their mouths are parched. I tried to fetch some water yesterday—or was it to-day—I can’t remember, but I fell down and could go no further, and the pail has remained there, unless some one has taken it.’
Elisha asked where the well was. The old woman told him. Elisha went out, found the pail, brought some water, and gave the people a drink. The children and the old woman ate some more bread with the water, but the man would not eat.
‘I cannot eat,’ he said.
All this time the younger woman did not show any consciousness, but continued to toss from side to side. Presently Elisha went to the village shop and bought some millet, salt, flour, and oil. He found an axe, chopped some wood, and made a fire. The little girl came and helped him. Then he boiled some soup, and gave the starving people a meal.
The man ate a little, the old woman had some too, and the little girl and boy licked the bowl clean, and then curled up and fell fast asleep in one another’s arms.
The man and the old woman then began telling Elisha how they had sunk to their present state.
‘We were poor enough before?’ said they, ‘but when the crops failed, what we gathered hardly lasted us through the autumn. We had nothing left by the time winter came, and had to beg from the neighbours and from any one we could. At first they gave, then they began to refuse. Some would have been glad enough to help us, but had nothing to give. And we were ashamed of asking: we were in debt all round, and owed money, and flour, and bread.’
‘I went to look for work,’ the man said, ‘but could find none. Everywhere people were offering to work merely for their own keep. One day you’d get a short job, and then you might spend two days looking for work. Then the old woman and the girl went begging, further away. But they got very little; bread was so scarce. Still we scraped food together somehow, and hoped to struggle through till next harvest, but towards spring people ceased to give anything. And then this illness seized us. Things became worse and worse. One day we might have something to eat, and then nothing for two days. We began eating grass. Whether it was the grass, or what, made my wife ill, I don’t know. She could not keep on her legs, and I had no strength left, and there was nothing to help us to recovery.’
‘I struggled on alone for a while,’ said the old woman, ‘but at last I broke down too for want of food, and grew quite weak. The girl also grew weak and timid. I told her to go to the neighbours — she would not leave the hut, but crept into a corner and sat there. The day before yesterday a neighbour looked in, but seeing that we were ill and hungry she turned away and left us. Her husband has had to go away, and she has nothing for her own little ones to eat. And so we lay, waiting for death.’
Having heard their story, Elisha gave up the thought of overtaking his comrade that day, and remained with them all night. In the morning he got up and began doing the housework, just as if it were his own home. He kneaded the bread with the old woman’s help, and lit the fire. Then he went with the little girl to the neighbours to get the most necessary things, for there was nothing in the hut: everything had been sold for bread — cooking utensils, clothing, and all. So Elisha began replacing what was necessary, making some things himself, and buying some. He remained there one day, then another, and then a third. The little boy picked up strength and, whenever Elisha sat down, crept along the bench and nestled up to him. The little girl brightened up and helped in all the work, running after Elisha and calling,
The old woman grew stronger, and managed to go out to see a neighbour. The man too improved, and was able to get about, holding on to the wall. Only the wife could not get up, but even she regained consciousness on the third day, and asked for food.
‘Well,’ thought Elisha, ‘I never expected to waste so much time on the way. Now I must be getting on.’
The fourth day was the feast day after the summer fast, and Elisha thought:
‘I will stay and break the fast with these people. I’ll go and buy them something, and keep the feast with them, and to-morrow evening I will start.’
So Elisha went into the village, bought milk, wheat-flour and dripping, and helped the old woman to boil and bake for the morrow. On the feast day Elisha went to church, and then broke the fast with his friends at the hut. That day the wife got up, and managed to move about a bit. The husband had shaved and put on a clean shirt, which the old woman had washed for him; and he went to beg for mercy of a rich peasant in the village to whom his ploughland and meadow were mortgaged. He went to beg the rich peasant to grant him the use of the meadow and field till after the harvest; but in the evening he came back very sad, and began to weep. The rich peasant had shown no mercy, but had said: ‘Bring me the money.’
Elisha again grew thoughtful. ‘How are they to live now?’ thought he to himself. ‘Other people will go haymaking, but there will be nothing for these to mow, their grass land is mortgaged. The rye will ripen. Others will reap (and what a fine crop mother-earth is giving this year), but they have nothing to look forward to. Their three acres are pledged to the rich peasant. When I am gone, they’ll drift back into the state I found them in.’
Elisha was in two minds, but finally decided not to leave that evening, but to wait until the morrow. He went out into the yard to sleep. He said his prayers, and lay down; but he could not sleep. On the one hand he felt he ought to be going, for he had spent too much time and money as it was; on the other hand he felt sorry for the people.
‘There seems to be no end to it, he said. ‘First I only meant to bring them a little water and give them each a slice of bread: and just see where it has landed me. It’s a case of redeeming the meadow and the cornfield. And when I have done that, I shall have to buy a cow for them, and a horse for the man to cart his sheaves. A nice coil you’ve got yourself into, brother Elisha! You’ve slipped your cables and lost your reckoning!’
Elisha got up, lifted his coat which he had been using for a pillow, unfolded it, got out his snuff-box and took a pinch, thinking that it might perhaps clear his thoughts.
But no! He thought and thought, and came to no conclusion. He ought to be going; and yet pity held him back. He did not know what to do. He refolded his coat and put it under his head again. He lay thus for a long time, till the cocks had already crowed once: then he was quite drowsy. And suddenly it seemed as if some one had roused him. He saw that he was dressed for the journey, with the sack on his back and the staff in his hand, and the gate stood ajar so that he could just squeeze through. He was about to pass out, when his sack caught against the fence on one side: he tried to free it, but then his leg-band caught on the other side and came undone. He pulled at the sack, and saw that it had not caught on the fence, but that the little girl was holding it and crying,
‘Bread, daddy, bread!’
He looked at his foot, and there was the tiny boy holding him by the leg-band, while the master of the hut and the old woman were looking at him through the window.
Elisha awoke, and said to himself in an audible voice:
‘To-morrow I will redeem their cornfield, and will buy them a horse, and flour to last till the harvest, and a cow for the little ones; or else while I go to seek the Lord beyond the sea, I may lose Him in myself.’
Then Elisha fell asleep, and slept till morning. He awoke early, and going to the rich peasant, redeemed both the cornfield and the meadow land. He bought a scythe (for that also had been sold) and brought it back with him. Then he sent the man to mow, and himself went into the village. He heard that there was a horse and cart for sale at the public-house, and he struck a bargain with the owner, and bought them. Then he bought a sack of flour, put it in the cart, and went to see about a cow. As he was going along he overtook two women talking as they went. Though they spake the Little-Russian dialect, he understood what they were saying.
‘At first, it seems, they did not know him; they thought he was just an ordinary man. He came in to ask for a drink of water, and then he remained. Just think of the things he has bought for them! Why they say he bought a horse and cart for them at the publican’s, only this morning! There are not many such men in the world. It’s worth while going to have a look at him.’
Elisha heard and understood that he was being praised, and he did not go to buy the cow, but returned to the inn, paid for the horse, harnessed it, drove up to the hut, and got out. The people in the hut were astonished when they saw the horse. They thought it might be for them, but dared not ask. The man came out to open the gate.
‘Where did you get a horse from, grandfather,’ he asked.
‘Why, I bought it,’ said Elisha. ‘It was going cheap. Go and cut some grass and put it in the manger for it to eat during the night. And take in the sack.’
The man unharnessed the horse, and carried the sack into the barn. Then he mowed some grass and put it in the manger. Everybody lay down to sleep. Elisha went outside and lay by the roadside. That evening he took his bag out with him. When every one was asleep, he got up, packed and fastened his bag, wrapped the linen bands round his legs, put on his shoes and coat, and set off to follow Efím.
When Elisha had walked rather more than three miles it began to grow light. He sat down under a tree, opened his bag, counted his money, and found he had only seventeen roubles and twenty kopeks left.
‘Well,’ thought he, ‘it is no use trying to cross the sea with this. If I beg my way it may be worse than not going at all. Friend Efím will get to Jerusalem without me, and will place a candle at the shrines in my name. As for me, I’m afraid I shall never fulfil my vow in this life. I must be thankful it was made to a merciful Master, and to one who pardons sinners.’
Elisha rose, jerked his bag well up on his shoulders, and turned back. Not wishing to be recognized by any one, he made a circuit to avoid the village, and walked briskly homeward. Coming from home the way had seemed difficult to him, and he had found it hard to keep up with Efím, but now on his return journey, God helped him to get over the ground so that he hardly felt fatigue. Walking seemed like child’s play. He went along swinging his staff, and did his forty to fifty miles a day.
When Elisha reached home the harvest was over. His family were delighted to see him again, and all wanted to know what had happened: Why and how he had been left behind? And why he had returned without reaching Jerusalem? But Elisha did not tell them.
‘It was not God’s will that I should get there,’ said he. ‘I lost my money on the way, and lagged behind my companion. Forgive me, for the Lord’s sake!’
Elisha gave his old wife what money he had left. Then he questioned them about home affairs. Everything was going on well; all the work had been done, nothing neglected, and all were living in peace and concord.
Efím’s family heard of his return the same day, and came for news of their old man; and to them Elisha gave the same answers.
‘Efím is a fast walker. We parted three days before St. Peter’s day, and I meant to catch him up again, but all sorts of things happened. I lost my money, and had no means to get any further, so I turned back.’
The folks were astonished that so sensible a man should have acted so foolishly: should have started and not got to his destination, and should have squandered all his money. They wondered at it for a while, and then forgot all about it, and Elisha forgot it too. He set to work again on his homestead. With his son’s help he cut wood for fuel for the winter. He and the women threshed the corn. Then he mended the thatch on the outhouses, put the bees under cover, and handed over to his neighbour the ten hives he had sold him in spring, and all the swarms that had come from them. His wife tried not to tell how many swarms there had been from these hives, but Elisha knew well enough from which there had been swarms and from which not. And instead of ten, he handed over seventeen swarms to his neighbour. Having got everything ready for the winter, Elisha sent his son away to find work, while he himself took to platting shoes of bark, and hollowing out logs for hives.
All that day while Elisha stopped behind in the hut with the sick people, Efím waited for him. He only went on a little way before he sat down. He waited and waited, had a nap, woke up again, and again sat waiting; but his comrade did not come. He gazed till his eyes ached. The sun was already sinking behind a tree, and still no Elisha was to be seen.
‘Perhaps he has passed me,’ thought Efím, ‘or perhaps some one gave him a lift and he drove by while I slept, and did not see me. But how could he help seeing me? One can see so far here in the steppe. Shall I go back? Suppose he is on in front, we shall then miss each other completely and it will be still worse. I had better go on, and we shall be sure to meet where we put up for the night.’
He came to a village, and told the watchman, if an old man of a certain description came along, to bring him to the hut where Efím stopped. But Elisha did not turn up that night. Efím went on, asking all he met whether they had not seen a little, bald-headed, old man? No one had seen such a traveller. Efím wondered, but went on alone, saying:
‘We shall be sure to meet in Odessa, or on board the ship,’ and he did not trouble more about it.
On the way, he came across a pilgrim wearing a priest’s coat, with long hair and a skull-cap such as priests wear. This pilgrim had been to Mount Athos, and was now going to Jerusalem for the second time. They both stopped at the same place one night, and, having met, they travelled on together.
They got safely to Odessa, and there had to wait three days for a ship. Many pilgrims from many different parts were in the same case. Again Efím asked about Elisha, but no one had seen him.
Efím got himself a foreign passport, which cost him five roubles. He paid forty roubles for a return ticket to Jerusalem, and bought a supply of bread and herrings for the voyage.
The pilgrim began explaining to Efím how he might get on to the ship without paying his fare; but Efím would not listen. ‘No, I came prepared to pay, and I shall pay,’ said he.
The ship was freighted, and the pilgrims went on board, Efím and his new comrade among them. The anchors were weighed, and the ship put out to sea.
All day they sailed smoothly, but towards night a wind arose, rain came on, and the vessel tossed about and shipped water. The people were frightened: the women wailed and screamed, and some of the weaker men ran about the ship looking for shelter. Efím too was frightened, but he would not show it, and remained at the place on deck where he had settled down when first he came on board, beside some old men from Tambóf. There they sat silent, all night and all next day, holding on to their sacks. On the third day it grew calm, and on the fifth day they anchored at Constantinople. Some of the pilgrims went on shore to visit the Church of St. Sophia, now held by the Turks. Efím remained on the ship, and only bought some white bread. They lay there for twenty-four hours, and then put to sea again. At Smyrna they stopped again; and at Alexandria; but at last they arrived safely at Jaffa, where all the pilgrims had to disembark. From there still it was more than forty miles by road to Jerusalem. When disembarking the people were again much frightened. The ship was high, and the people were dropped into boats, which rocked so much that it was easy to miss them and fall into the water. A couple of men did get a wetting, but at last all were safely landed.
They went on on foot, and at noon on the third day reached Jerusalem. They stopped outside the town, at the Russian inn, where their passports were indorsed. Then, after dinner, Efím visited the Holy Places with his companion, the pilgrim. It was not the time when they could be admitted to the Holy Sepulchre, but they went to the Patriarchate. All the pilgrims assembled there. The women were separated from the men, who were all told to sit in a circle, barefoot. Then a monk came in with a towel to wash their feet. He washed, wiped, and then kissed their feet, and did this to every one in the circle. Efím’s feet were washed and kissed, with the rest. He stood through vespers and matins, prayed, placed candles at the shrines, handed in booklets inscribed with his parents, names, that they might be mentioned in the church prayers. Here at the Patriarchate food and wine were given them. Next morning they went to the cell of Mary of Egypt, where she had lived doing penance. Here too they placed candles and had prayers read. From there they went to Abraham’s Monastery, and saw the place where Abraham intended to slay his son as an offering to God. Then they visited the spot where Christ appeared to Mary Magdalene, and the Church of James, the Lord’s brother. The pilgrim showed Efím all these places, and told him how much money to give at each place. At mid-day they returned to the inn and had dinner. As they were preparing to lie down and rest, the pilgrim cried out, and began to search his clothes, feeling them all over.
‘My purse has been stolen, there were twenty-three roubles in it,’ said he, ‘two ten-rouble notes and the rest in change.’
He sighed and lamented a great deal, but as there was no help for it, they lay down to sleep.
As Efím lay there, he was assailed by temptation.
‘No one has stolen any money from this pilgrim,’ thought he, ‘I do not believe he had any. He gave none away anywhere, though he made me give, and even borrowed a rouble of me.’
This thought had no sooner crossed his mind, than Efím rebuked himself, saying: ‘What right have I to judge a man? It is a sin. I will think no more about it.’ But as soon as his thoughts began to wander, they turned again to the pilgrim: how interested he seemed to be in money, and how unlikely it sounded when he declared that his purse had been stolen.
‘He never had any money,’ thought Efím. ‘It’s all an invention.’
Towards evening they got up, and went to midnight Mass at the great Church of the Resurrection, where the Lord’s Sepulchre is. The pilgrim kept close to Efím and went with him everywhere. They came to the Church; a great many pilgrims were there; some Russians and some of other nationalities: Greeks, Armenians, Turks, and Syrians. Efím entered the Holy Gates with the crowd. A monk led them past the Turkish sentinels, to the place where the Saviour was taken down from the cross and anointed, and where candles were burning in nine great candlesticks. The monk showed and explained everything. Efím offered a candle there. Then the monk led Efím to the right, up the steps to Golgotha, to the place where the cross had stood. Efím prayed there. Then they showed him the cleft where the ground had been rent asunder to its nethermost depths; then the place where Christ’s hands and feet were nailed to the cross; then Adam’s tomb, where the blood of Christ had dripped on to Adam’s bones. Then they showed him the stone on which Christ sat when the crown of thorns was placed on His head; then the post to which Christ was bound when He was scourged. Then Efím saw the stone with two holes for Christ’s feet. They were going to show him something else, but there was a stir in the crowd, and the people all hurried to the church of the Lord’s Sepulchre itself. The Latin Mass had just finished there, and the Russian Mass was beginning. And Efím went with the crowd to the tomb cut in the rock.
He tried to get rid of the pilgrim, against whom he was still sinning in his mind, but the pilgrim would not leave him, but went with him to the Mass at the Holy Sepulchre. They tried to get to the front, but were too late. There was such a crowd that it was impossible to move either backwards or forwards. Efím stood looking in front of him, praying, and every now and then feeling for his purse. He was in two minds: sometimes he thought that the pilgrim was deceiving him, and then again he thought that if the pilgrim spoke the truth and his purse had really been stolen, the same thing might happen to himself.
Efím stood there gazing into the little chapel in which was the Holy Sepulchre itself with thirty-six lamps burning above it. As he stood looking over the people’s heads, he saw something that surprised him. Just beneath the lamps in which the sacred fire burns and in front of every one, Efím saw an old man in a grey coat, whose bald, shining head was just like Elisha Bódrof.
‘It is like him,’ thought Efím, ‘but it cannot be Elisha. He could not have got ahead of me. The ship before ours started a week sooner. He could not have caught that; and he was not on ours, for I saw every pilgrim on board.’
Hardly had Efím thought this, when the little old man began to pray, and bowed three times: once forwards to God, then once on each side — to the brethren. And as he turned his head to the right, Efím recognized him. It was Elisha Bódrof himself with his dark, curly beard turning grey at the cheeks, with his brows, his eyes and nose, and his expression of face. Yes, it was he!
Efím was very pleased to have found his comrade again, and wondered how Elisha had got ahead of him.
‘Well done, Elisha!’ thought he. ‘See how he has pushed ahead. He must have come across some one who showed him the way. When we get out, I will find him, get rid of this fellow in the skull-cap, and keep to Elisha. Perhaps he will show me how to get to the front also.’
Efím kept looking out, so as not to lose sight of Elisha. But when the Mass was over, the crowd began to sway, pushing forward to kiss the tomb, and pushed Efím aside. He was again seized with fear lest his purse should be stolen. Pressing it with his hand, he began elbowing through the crowd, anxious only to get out. When he reached the open, he went about for a long time searching for Elisha both outside and in the Church itself. In the cells of the Church he saw many people of all kinds, eating, and drinking wine, and reading and sleeping there. But Elisha was nowhere to be seen. So Efím returned to the inn without having found his comrade. That evening the pilgrim in the skull-cap did not turn up. He had gone off without repaying the rouble, and Efím was left alone.
The next day Efím went to the Holy Sepulchre again, with an old man from Tambóf, whom he had met on the ship. He tried to get to the front, but was again pressed back; so he stood by a pillar and prayed. He looked before him, and there in the foremost place under the lamps, close to the very Sepulchre of the Lord, stood Elisha, with his arms spread out like a priest at the altar, and with his bald head all shining.
‘Well, now,’ thought Efím, ‘I won’t lose him!’
He pushed forward to the front, but when he got there, there was no Elisha: he had evidently gone away.
Again on the third day Efím looked, and saw at the Sepulchre, in the holiest place, Elisha standing in the sight of all men, his arms outspread, and his eyes gazing upwards as if he saw something above. And his bald head was all shining.
‘Well, this time,’ thought Efím, ‘he shall not escape me! I will go and stand at the door, then we can’t miss one another!’
Efím went out and stood by the door till past noon. Every one had passed out, but still Elisha did not appear.
Efím remained six weeks in Jerusalem, and went everywhere: to Bethlehem, and to Bethany, and to the Jordan. He had a new shirt sealed at the Holy Sepulchre for his burial, and he took a bottle of water from the Jordan, and some holy earth, and bought candles that had been lit at the sacred flame. In eight places he inscribed names to be prayed for, and he spent all his money, except just enough to get home with. Then he started homeward. He walked to Jaffa, sailed thence to Odessa, and walked home from there on foot.
Efím travelled the same road he had come by; and as he drew nearer home his former anxiety returned as to how affairs were getting on in his absence. ‘Much water flows away in a year,’ the proverb says. It takes a lifetime to build up a homestead, but not long to ruin it, thought he. And he wondered how his son had managed without him, what sort of spring they were having, how the cattle had wintered, and whether the cottage was well finished. When Efím came to the district where he had parted from Elisha the summer before, he could hardly believe that the people living there were the same. The year before they had been starving, but now they were living in comfort. The harvest had been good, and the people had recovered and had forgotten their former misery.
One evening Efím reached the very place where Elisha had remained behind; and as he entered the village, a little girl in a white smock ran out of a hut.
‘Daddy, daddy, come to our house!’
Efím meant to pass on, but the little girl would not let him. She took hold of his coat, laughing, and pulled him towards the hut, where a woman with a small boy came out into the porch and beckoned to him.
‘Come in, grandfather,’ she said. ‘Have supper and spend the night with us.’
So Efím went in.
‘I may as well ask about Elisha,’ he thought. ‘I fancy this is the very hut he went to for a drink of water.’
The woman helped him off with the bag he carried, and gave him water to wash his face. Then she made him sit down to table, and set milk, curd-cakes and porridge before him. Efím thanked her, and praised her for her kindness to a pilgrim. The woman shook her head.
‘We have good reason to welcome pilgrims,’ she said. ‘It was a pilgrim who showed us what life is. We were living forgetful of God, and God punished us almost to death. We reached such a pass last summer, that we all lay ill and helpless with nothing to eat. And we should have died, but that God sent an old man to help us—just such a one as you. He came in one day to ask for a drink of water, saw the state we were in, took pity on us, and remained with us. He gave us food and drink, and set us on our feet again; and he redeemed our land, and bought a cart and horse and gave them to us.’
Here the old woman entering the hut, interrupted the younger one and said:
‘We don’t know whether it was a man, or an angel from God. He loved us all, pitied us all, and went away without telling us his name, so that we don’t even know whom to pray for. I can see it all before me now! There I lay waiting for death, when in comes a bald-headed old man. He was not anything much to look at, and he asked for a drink of water. I, sinner that I am, thought to myself: “What does he come prowling about here for?” And just think what he did! As soon as he saw us, he let down his bag, on this very spot, and untied it.’
Here the little girl joined in.
‘No, Granny,’ said she, ‘first he put it down here in the middle of the hut, and then he lifted it on to the bench.’
And they began discussing and recalling all he had said and done, where he sat and slept, and what he had said to each of them.
At night the peasant himself came home on his horse, and he too began to tell about Elisha and how he had lived with them.
‘Had he not come we should all have died in our sins. We were dying in despair, murmuring against God and man. But he set us on our feet again; and through him we learned to know God, and to believe that there is good in man. May the Lord bless him! We used to live like animals; he made human beings of us.
After giving Efím food and drink, they showed him where he was to sleep; and lay down to sleep themselves.
But though Efím lay down, he could not sleep. He could not get Elisha out of his mind, but remembered how he had seen him three times at Jerusalem, standing in the foremost place.
‘So that is how he got ahead of me,’ thought Efím. ‘God may or may not have accepted my pilgrimage but He has certainly accepted his!’
Next morning Efím bade farewell to the people, who put some patties in his sack before they went to their work, and he continued his journey.
Efím had been away just a year, and it was spring again when he reached home one evening. His son was not at home, but had gone to the public-house and when he came back, he had had a drop too much. Efím began questioning him. Everything showed that the young fellow had been unsteady during his father’s absence. The money had all been wrongly spent, and the work had been neglected. The father began to upbraid the son; and the son answered rudely.
‘Why didn’t you stay and look after it yourself?’ he said. ‘You go off, taking the money with you and now you demand it of me!’
The old man grew angry, and struck his son.
In the morning Efím went to the village Elder to complain of his son’s conduct. As he was passing Elisha’s house, his friend’s wife greeted him from the porch.
‘How do you do, neighbour,’ she said. ‘How do you do, dear friend? Did you get to Jerusalem safely?’
‘Yes, thank God,’ he said. ‘I have been there. I lost sight of your old man, but I hear he got home safely.’
The old woman was fond of talking:
‘Yes, neighbour, he has come back,’ said she. ‘He’s been back a long time. Soon after Assumption, I think it was, he returned. And we were glad the Lord had sent him back to us! We were dull without him. We can’t expect much work from him any more, his years for work are past; but still he is the head of the household and it’s more cheerful when he’s at home. And how glad our lad was! He said, “It’s like being without sunlight, when father’s away!” It was dull without him, dear friend. We’re fond of him, and take good care of him.’
‘Is he at home now?’
‘He is, dear friend. He is with his bees. He is hiving the swarms. He says they are swarming well this year. The Lord has given such strength to the bees that my husband doesn’t remember the like. “The Lord is not rewarding us according to our sins,” he says. Come in, dear neighbour, he will be so glad to see you again.’
Efím passed through the passage into the yard and to the apiary, to see Elisha. There was Elisha in his grey coat, without any face-net or gloves, standing, under the birch trees, looking upwards, his arms stretched out and his bald head shining, as Efím had seen him at the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem: and above him the sunlight shone through the birches as the flames of fire had done in the holy place, and the golden bees flew round his head like a halo, and did not sting him.
Efím stopped. The old woman called to her husband.
‘Here’s your friend come,’ she cried.
Elisha looked round with a pleased face, and came towards Efím, gently picking bees out of his own beard.
‘Good day, neighbour, good-day, dear friend. Did you get there safely?’
‘My feet walked there, and I have brought you some water from the river Jordan. You must come to my house for it. But whether the Lord accepted my efforts. . . .’
‘Well the Lord be thanked! May Christ bless you!’ said Elisha.
Efím was silent for a while, and then added:
‘My feet have been there, but whether my soul, or another’s, has been there more truly . . .’
‘That’s God’s business, neighbour, God’s business,’ interrupted Elisha.
‘On my return journey I stopped at the hut where you remained behind. . . .’
Elisha was alarmed, and said hurriedly:
‘God’s business, neighbour, God’s business! Come into the cottage, I’ll give you some of our honey.’ And Elisha changed the conversation, and talked of home affairs.
Efím sighed, and did not speak to Elisha of the people in the hut, nor of how he had seen him in Jerusalem. But he now understood that the best way to keep one’s vows to God and to do His will, is for each man while he lives to show love and do good to others.
↑ Worn by Russian peasants instead of stockings.
↑ Little Russia is situated in the south-western part of Russia, and consists of the Governments of Kief, Poltava, Tchernigof, and part of Kharkof and Kherson.
↑ In Great Russia the peasants let their shirt hang outside their trousers.
↑ An icon (properly ikón) is a representation of God, Christ, an angel, or a saint, usually painted, enamelled, or embossed.