The Little Dark Man
‘ I AM going to tell you a story,’ said my Russian friend one night, ‘which will give you a glimpse of the little dark man whose figure will soon be more plainly seen in many countries of the world. And then he will look quite enormously large — even in America.’
My curiosity was stirred. We were sitting in his small house, that night, up in the north of Russia. It was the autumn of 1917. When I asked what he meant by the little dark man, he smiled at me and answered: —
‘If I should try to tell you, I would be talking all the night, for this chap has appeared in so many forms, since men began asking “What is the life?” In the Middle Ages he grew quite large, and they called him Saint or Sorcerer. Then came modern science and smiled at him; and as men smiled he grew small to their eyes, so small that soon those scientists forgot him — like God, whom they also denied. But now I think he will grow again. So large will he grow at the end of this war that soon you will hear the millions of greatly puzzled people inquire, “Who is this psychic gentleman? He is doing the strange things. How does he do them?” they will ask. And the orthodox atheist, sharply annoyed, will have to find some way to reply. . . . But all this time while he was so dim to those learned people in the towns, to the simple peasants of our land he has always been quite real. And my story to-night is of such peasants, and of one who lived among them, and of a thing that I saw with my eyes. So now I shall tell — and at first you will hear a story beginning not strangely at all, but just very human, very Russian.’
He smiled again, and so began. And the tale that he told I shall try to repeat in his own words, as he told it to me.
‘Surely we shall be too late! Make haste, go on!’ my mother cried, although it was more than five hours yet before the train to Petrograd could possibly reach the station to which we were driving. For my good mother always loved to be ‘a little before’ a train. In all our trips, though I did my best to be as slow as possible, never could I manage so that we reached the station less than some two hours before the arrival of the train. And knowing this, our peasant driver only smiled when she implored him to be going like the wind.
‘Barina,’ he said, ‘we shall have three hours still to wait, if the train is not late. But God only knows how late it will be. The last time it was fully six hours behind; so perhaps you will sit at the station all through the day and through the night.’
‘ Go on — oh, please!' my poor mother, cried. So with an indignant grunt, the peasant beat his horses to the splendid gallop; and so we were going until at last we stopped with a jerk in the mud and snow before the gate to the station yard. ‘Thank God, now we are in time!' declared my mother wit h content, while I went into the station to inquire about the train. Never in all my life have I heard of any train so far behind! Somewhere in Holy Russia it was, and this was all that I could learn. Many hours at least we should be here. I was in the despair, which was still increased when soon I found that the station buffet was hopelessly closed. The whole place was filled with emptiness!
I strolled upon the platform then, and at last discovered at one end a single living creature there — a blond and tall, quite nicely built young peasant woman, cleanly dressed, who sat immovable, calm like a cow. It seemed to me I had seen her before; but where, at first I could not guess. Then suddenly I recollected. Yes, this was the nice young woman I met not long ago on my way to Okuneff’s, a neighbor of mine whose small estate was about fifty versts from our home. I had talked with her then, so I had learned that she was from the village of Bor; and now I was glad that I had discovered someone with whom my good mother could talk, since I knew that she did not like to be mute for any considerable length of time. So I brought the girl to her and said that here was a nice young woman from Bor. One glance of the keen pleased interest, and my mother knew at once that this young woman would soon have a child. So with full speed the gossip began; and in perhaps two hours, with never any silence at all, we knew all about this woman’s life — not only her name, but the names of all her relatives and all her friends, and all their lives from year to year, as though we ourselves were born in Bor. And only when she had recounted all this, did Maria quietly tell to us how early this morning she had come there, and already was on the train when off she ran to the buffet to fetch some hot water for her tea. The train went off while she was there — and her luggage was now in Petrograd! At once my mother, in full dismay, was convinced it would be stolen there; but the girl Maria quite calmly replied: —
‘No, Barina, such a thing cannot be. Do you see? I am poor and with child, and my husband is sick from a wound in the war. Will he live or not, God only knows. So how could there be any people so bad, who would steal from such a girl as me, who goes to see her husband in Petrograd where he may die?’
But my good mother’s concern increased. Earnestly turning to me, she implored, ‘Junechka, please — explain to her that there are such people in Petrograd — that the luggage men are scoundrels there. Perhaps she will believe you, since you are a man.’
But just because I was a man, off I walked from this hopeless talk. I walked and walked, the time went on, and at last arrived the train in the night.
By now my anxious mother resolved to take the girl with us, second class, since she had learned that Maria knew nobody in Petrograd except her husband, Peter, who was in a lazaret. On the train she gave us a letter from him — a most typical one — many peasants write so: —
‘To our deeply esteemed wife, Maria Sidorovna, we send our greetings of the husband. I am ill in Petrograd in the lazaret N. 423, so please come quickly to me there. Give our greetings to — ‘ and then followed the names of all the relatives, friends, and persons of village, acquaintance, placed in the hierarchical order.
The letter at last was finished: —
‘And pray to accept our blessings of the husband for your good success — which blessing is good until the coffin.'
In the station at Petrograd, where we arrived at the end of the night, I found at last the conductor of the early morning train, and soon, to my enormous surprise, the luggage of the girl was found. When he brought to Maria her huge bag, she took it without astonishment, quite calmly as a matter of course. ‘Surely,’he said with the curious smile, ‘you must be a girl from the North, where the people live without locks on their doors!' I paid the man five roubles for the trouble he took not to steal the bag, and then my mother asked Maria to come along with us that day and be safe from all the scoundrels. Without confusion the girl replied, ‘Thanks.’ And she quietly climbed into the sledge.
It was now early in the dawn, but as we passed so many great houses, palaces, and God knows what, Maria looked calmly at them all and showed not even the small surprise, though never once yet in her life had she visited any town, and the only stone building she had seen was the little church in Bor, which was some seven centuries old. ‘This is the town. Then it must be so,’ was the thought in her eyes, and nothing else. Like the splendid healt hy ox she was! When we came to our lodging, Maria at once felt herself here quite at home, as though she had been years long with us. While eating some bread and sipping the tea, she now continued to us her tale. Her husband, she told, had been a soldier already for two years in the war. They had taken him off when he was eighteen. All the time near Riga he had been, digging many trenches there, ‘so that men could be saved from the bullets,’ she said. Eight months ago, he was with her in Bor for a few days; then away he went — and not until now had she received any news of him.
Then, while I went to the telephone to ask the address of the lazaret, Maria was carefully making herself fit for her great visit that day — ‘ to my deeply esteemed husband,’ she said. She displayed before my mother the contents of her enormous bag. It was quite a museum of village fine art — the laces made with needles so fine and with such perfect taste that they could easily compare with that coming from Venice my mother declared. Then came the fine and silk-like linen, spun in the home, some snowy white and some with faded green and pink woven into it, in such a way, and with a feeling of color so fine, that it was quite a wonder to see! My mother’s good eyes came out of her head! With dry reproach she looked at me, and said, —
‘You have been many times to Bor! Were you always sleeping there, that you never saw such needlework, to buy some and to bring to me? This is exactly the way of a man!’
My position grew most unpleasant now. My God! And in order to save myself, I made the heroic proposition to make a special journey to Bor at once and fetch all the stuff I could buy.
While I was telling this splendid resolve, Maria at last was ready to start — quite in her best attire now, with her fair thick hair all shined with oil and tightly coiffed. ‘My own husband I am going to see, so I must be at my best,’ she said. Our dvornik fetched for her a sledge, and off on the dirty snow of the street she drove away to the lazaret.
In about three hours back she came — quite terribly silent, with not a trace of the calm animation she had shown when she was preparing herself for the visit. She sat a long time so deeply sad that it was a woe to look at her. Her husband was so ill, she said, the doctors even did not allow him to speak any word with his own wife. On the train from the front, I soon understood, the poor devil had caught a pneumonia, and now there was faint hope he could survive. Two-thirds of his lungs did not breathe, she told us. Still not a tear, nor any complaint. Silently she took off her fine clothes. She asked of my mother, ‘Where is the church?’ And off she went to pray to the God.
Now I telephoned to the lazaret, to find if nothing could be done; but they told me her husband was ill quite long, and was weak before the pneumonia came. Now he lived only by breathing the pure oxygen from the tank. No hope at all. Perhaps two days would be the longest time for him. . . . Well, poor lad — another one dead. But death was so common in Russia now, that soon I dropped him off my mind, and went to attend to the business for which I had come to Petrograd. I accomplished it that afternoon; then, having nothing urgent to do, in order to please my mother I decided to go back to Bor and buy some linen and laces there, and also perhaps have a nice long chat with my friend Okuneff, who lived near by.
So I took the train from the city that night; and the next day, after quite a long drive over the clean white snow of a road through the silent forest of huge pines, I came to the little village which was the girl Maria’s home. Soon I discovered the hut where she lived, and I found her younger sister there. She was a lass of perhaps sixteen, a nicelooking girl with brown-golden eyes, thick chestnut hair, and finely built — but silent, silent like a fish. I explained to her the bad news about Peter, and also why I had come to Bor; and of course I mentioned that I was going to see my old friend Okuneff near by. This was to make my credit higher — since no peasant likes to sell or have trade with a person unknown to him.
The girl had listened silently both to the news of Peter and also to my business talk; but now when I said I would go to Okuneff, without any word she went from the hut and soon returned with a neighbor woman, to whom she explained what had to be done while she was away from the home that day. ‘Well, my swallow, well, my birdie, I will do so,’ the neighbor agreed.
When the compact was made, and not before, did the young girl calmly ask of me if she might go in my sledge to Okuneff’s.
‘There is plenty of room, you see, and I will take but small space,’ she said. ‘And if Peter is so ill, I must go at once to a very old man who is living now in the house of your friend, the Barin Okuneff. So please to make for me this grace.’
Of course I agreed, and we started away. We traveled about twenty versts, and this girl at my side was silent still as any fish could possibly be. I learned her name, Pelageia — but not another word from her could I draw out along the road. In the concentrated way she sat, as if she thought of something.
What it was I did not know — and as I looked at her I guessed that not even she herself knew her thoughts. So at last we came to Okuneff’s estate. Exceedingly glad to see me there, at once in his stentorian voice he cried: —
‘Juvenal Vassilievich arrived! Now make for us a big fish-pie! Be quick as possible! Don’t forget to serve the nice zakooski, too!’
And then followed the further orders which he shouted from his room down to the kitchen far below.
That was a splendid feast we had. With the appetites of heroes we consumed appalling heaps of food. After dinner we slept a bit, — about two hours, — and when again I came into the front room of the house, I saw the girl Pelageia there, sitting with a little old man who was dressed in the black garb of a monk. He was wiry, thin, and quite white-haired; but he had the strong determined face, and a tremendous force was felt both in his voice and in his eyes — though his manner was quite humble and his speech was very low. The girl must have been telling him about Maria’s husband; for when I entered the little old man rose and greeted me, and began to ask intently in detail what I had heard from the doctors about Peter’s hopeless case. When I had explained, he asked as well all about the lazaret — just where it was in Petrograd, how large, how many rooms it had, and just where was Peter’s bed. He inquired as though he himself were intending to go and see the sick man there. When all this information he had, he thanked me and rose and went to his room.
Then I asked my friend Okuneff who was this little holy man? He answered me that now for some time the old fellow had lived within his house, and that he was glad to have him there — so quiet and good he always was, so little trouble did he make. He stayed most of the time alone in his room, and his meals were the water and the rye bread — only rarely a dish of sauerkraut with sunflower oil, which he took as a feast. The strange healing-power he sometimes had; many peasants had been cured by him. So much for his case. With Okuneff I soon forgot about him now, and all evening long we talked of the war — of prices, how they rose and rose; and of new laws by the government, each one more stupid than the last — or not so stupid, rather done by the German influence at court, to bring all our trade and industries down. So, after this good cheerful talk, which most Russians like so well, finally we went to bed.
The next day when leaving Okuneff’s house, I saw the old man of the night before. He said, in the low and quiet voice, ‘I attended to the trouble of Peter, and I received news that now all will go well.’
I smiled to myself. For how could such a simple old man travel six hundred versts in a night to the lazaret where Peter lay? I went into my sledge with Pelageia, and we started back to Bor. Though she had heard what the old man said, she took it quite as a matter of course. She was rather communicative now, and explained to me that it would be hard to buy the linen and laces in Bor; for the women did not like to sell except in the cases exceedingly rare. Too much toil their stuff had cost. But still she would try to persuade them to sell to me something, if only a little. Very calmly on she talked. Long ago some merchants had bought the lace in Bor, she said, but could not sell it in the big towns, because the ladies there preferred to buy the laces foreign-made. ‘For to them it was the shocking taste to wear anything made in Russia!’ she said. So now her friends and neighbors in Bor were quite indignant that their fine work should be refused for the bad lace made with machines in Germany! Pelageia spoke of those ladies in towns, most heartily despising them all! ‘No self-respecting Barina,’ she said, ‘would wear such trash from Germany!’
But about the little old man she did not say a single word. And when I asked if she thought he would help, the girl replied, ‘It is not a good thing to speak of the Starzy (Holy Man).’
In Bor, through her aid, I bought what I could. Of all the money which I had I spared only enough for the ticket — third class — and so I went back to Petrograd. But when I arrived with my linen and laces I found the girl Maria still there; and to my enormously great chagrin, my mother would barely look at this stuff! Instead, she began to tell me now of a most strange adventure which they have had while I was gone. A little old man, in the garb of a monk or of a pilgrim, came to them. Though all the doors were closed, she told, without trouble or sound he entered silently into the room where they were sitting; and after greeting Maria, he said, ‘I have been to your Peter and talked with him, and have found that now he will soon be quite well.’
Then quickly and strangely he went away. . . . While my mother told this tale, I saw the girl Maria looking intently at my face, as if she were asking, ‘ And what, do you know?’ But I told them nothing yet of the man that I had seen at Okuneff’s house. In the great interest and surprise I began to question both of them, and soon they were disagreeing as to many small details — just how he looked, just what he said. But the general story was the same. The next morning, they told me, they went to see Peter.
‘And really, Junechka, the boy was much better!’ my excited mother declared, ‘He breathed quite well without oxygen now — but still was too weak to say anything more than that he had seen an old man there — and that now all would be well with him!’
With all my curiosity stirred I went the next day to the lazaret — and there I found Peter so much improved that he could talk quite easily and listen to what I had to tell. I did not speak of the little old man; I only told how I had gone to his village and seen his wife’s young sister there. With the calm interest of the peasant, Peter listened to my talk. At last I asked him how it was that he was feeling better now — and then he said very quietly: —
‘One came to me two nights ago.’
‘Who came to you? What do you mean?’ I asked. ‘No visitors can come here in the night. Perhaps you were sleeping and had a dream.’
‘No, I was awake,’ he replied. “But I was lying in the state where you cannot say, “ Here is life — there is death " — because you can feel yourself just between. And this was very hard for me. I did not know what I should do. Should I ask for the death and pray for my soul, or should I be begging the God for my life and thinking of my family? I grew quite tired with such thoughts, and all the fighting in my chest. But I cannot say that I was asleep, for I saw all about me quite clearly and well, and I heard how the Sister beside my bed was saying, “Look, now, how he plays with his hands, always drawing the blanket up to his chin. That is the sure sign of death.” So I lay and I listened. So quiet I grew that now it was quite the same to me, whether I lived or whether I died. She dropped her needle. I opened my eyes and watched how she stooped and tried to find it on the floor. “Will she find it,” I asked, “before I die?” She found it soon, and drew her chair a little closer to my bed — and now she was sewing quietly here. “Now,” I thought, “in this long war, she is so used to see men die. What is she sewing?” I watched her still.
‘Then something pulled upon my thoughts, and I turned my face toward the door. And I saw, at first dimly, then quite clear, how there had entered a little old man in the dark robe of Holy Church, his face quite bright, a happy one, yet quiet too with the deep strength of joy and peace within his soul streaming from him like the light. So he came and looked at me with a good smile. “Good day, Peter,” he said. “You will soon be much better. I have heard that you are ill, so I have gone and inquired for you, and learned you will recover soon. You must pray to the God for recovery.” I replied to him, “For what should I pray — when I cannot tell which is life, which is death? I am lying between.” Then he said to me, “You must pray to the God at once for the life! You are still a young man and you have a young wife, and soon there will be a child for you, too! A fine strong boy he is going to be! What reason have you to think of the death? You are going to pray to live, my boy!” Then he told to me how I should pray, and I repeated it, word by word. While I was talking I heard the good Sister, who sat sewing still at my side, say very softly, “Now the poor man is saying a burial prayer for himself.” I looked around to smile at her then — and when I looked back, the old man was gone.
‘Then I fell asleep and slept all of the night. The next day the Sister looked at me and said, “You were the funny man last night! Quickly you turned and began to speak with somebody who was not here! And then you began to pray to the God!” I said to the Sister, “But did you not see the old man who came and spoke to me?” She laughed and took hold of my hand and said, “Well, well, if there was, or there was not — do not let it trouble you! I am glad that you are better now!” Then she went and brought the doctor here, and when he came he was much surprised. Barely could he believe his own eyes that I was not a dead man to-day. And he said to me, “Peter — you are the bull! The strong and lusty bull you must be!” So said the learned doctor. But look at me, Barin, if I am the bull.’
Peter drew off his blanket and opened his shirt. And he was like a skeleton very closely clad in skin!
‘The Sister told to the doctor then,’ he continued quietly, ‘how I spoke with someone who was not here — though of course he was here, as I have said. She told to the doctor, too, how I prayed. Then he asked, “How was his fever last night?” It was under the normal, the Sister replied; and she told how close I was to the death. Now the doctor understood all, and he said, “Just so it was. The poor fellow was mad. For in such a crisis, when the soul does not know whether to stay or depart, often the man wall grow quite mad, and see what is not in the room.” So I listened, and I thought, “Now of course it must be so — for he is the very learned man. How many dead men have slipped through his hands! The great experience he has had! He must be right! So I am mad!” But soon again I fell asleep, and when I awoke I grew better still. And now I do not think I am mad — and I feel that soon I will return to my home.’
He grew tired then and could talk no more. Quietly closing his eyes he said,
‘Tell me, please, Barin, about my home — all that you saw while you were there. Was the horse in the stable? Or has my wife been forced to sell him in this damned war?’
‘Yes, the horse was there,’ I replied. ‘But now I will tell you something else.’ And I told how the girl Pelageia went with me to Okuneff’s house, and how she was begging the old man there to pray that Peter should not die, and how the old man on the next day told that he had looked into the matter and that now all would be well. At this, Peter grew most solemnly silent; and when I had finished, he remarked,
"So— so it was. Pelageia went to the Starzy there. She is the good kind clever girl — she knew to whom to go for help; and now I know who it was that came. I will recover surely now.’
Then he plucked at my arm; and when I bent down, he whispered: —
‘Only, Barin — please — do not speak of this to the doctors here! For they are the quite learned men! They can make a man die with one little pill! And if they knew what we are talking, for me it would soon be dangerously bad! For they think I am mad! They do not know! They live in such cities — so large, so large, and filled with so many learned books — that they cannot grasp our very plain and simple little village ways! So let us just slip away from them!’
Ten days later, with his wife, Peter went calmly back to his home — as though nothing strange had happened at all. We heard no more from them for a month — and then the girl Pelageia, almost as silent as before, came to our lodgings with quite a huge bag of linen and laces which she and Maria had made for my mother, as a gift. And she told us that Maria had just given birth to a son.