There are many solitary graves amid the woods of Kerschentz; within them moulder the bones of old men, men of an ancient piety, and of one of these old men, Antipa, this tale is told in the villages of Kerschentz.
Antipa Lunev, a rich peasant of austere disposition, lived to his fiftieth year, sunken in worldly sins, then was moved to profound self-examination, and seized with agony of soul, forsook his family and buried himself in the loneliness of the forest. There on the edge of a ravine he built his hermit's cell, and lived for eight years, summer and winter. He let no one approach him, neither acquaintances nor kindred. Sometimes people who had lost their way in the woods came by chance on his hut and saw Antipa kneeling on the threshold, praying. He was terrible to see—worn with fasting and prayer, and covered with hair like a wild beast. If he caught sight of any one, he rose up and bowed himself to the ground before him. If he were asked the way out of the forest, he indicated the path with his hand without speaking, bowed to the ground again, went into his cell and shut himself in. He was seen many times during the eight years, but no man ever heard his voice. His wife and children used to visit him, he took food and clothing from them, bowed himself before them as before others, but, during the time of his anchorite life, spoke no word with them any more than with strangers.
He died the same year that the hermitages of the wood were swept away, and his death came in this fashion.
The Chief of Police came through the forest with a detachment of soldiers, and saw Antipa kneeling, silently praying in his cell.
"You there!" shouted the officer. "Clear out of this, we're going to smash up this den of yours!"
But Antipa heard nothing, and however loudly the captain shouted, the pious hermit answered him never a word. Then the officer ordered his men to drag Antipa out of his cell. But the soldiers were troubled before the gaze of the old man, who continued in prayer so steadfastly and earnestly, and paid no heed to them, and, shaken by such strength of soul, they hesitated to carry out the command. Then the captain ordered them to break up the hut, and they began to remove the roof silently and very carefully, to avoid hurting the worshipper within.
The axes rang over Antipa's head, the boards split and fell to the ground, the dull echo of the blows sounded through the wood, the birds terrified by the noise fluttered uneasily round the cell, and the leaves trembled on the trees. But the old man prayed on as though he neither saw nor heard. They began to break up the flooring of the hut, and still its owner knelt undisturbed, and only when the last timbers were thrown aside and the captain himself went up to Antipa and caught him by the hair, only then did he speak, his eyes lifted to heaven, quietly, to God, "Merciful Father, forgive them."
Then he fell back and died.
When this happened, Jakov, the eldest son of Antipa, was twenty-three years old, and Terenti, the youngest, eighteen. Jakov, handsome and strong, gained the name of "scatter-brain," while still a youngster, and by the time his father died, was already the chief loafer and bully in the country-side. All complained of him—his mother, the Starost, the neighbours: he was imprisoned, he was whipped, with and without legal condemnation, but nothing tamed his wild disposition, and day by day he felt more stifled and constrained in the village among the pious people, busy and hard working as moles, scorners of every new thing, holding fast to the precepts of their ancient faith. Jakov smoked tobacco, drank brandy, wore clothes of German cut, and went to no prayers or religious services, and if decent folk admonished him and reminded him of his father, he would say scornfully, "Wait a bit, good people, all in good time. When I have sinned enough, I will think of repentance. It's too early yet; you need not hold up my father as an example to me—he sinned for fifty years, and repented only for eight after all. My sins now are nothing but as the down on the young bird, but when my full feathers are grown, then I may think of repentance."
"An evil heretic," was Jakov Lunev's name in the village, where they hated and feared him.
Some two years after his father's death, he married. The farm that his father established by thirty years strenuous labour, he had thoroughly ruined by his spendthrift life, and no one in the village would give him a daughter in marriage. But somewhere in a distant village he found a pretty orphan-girl, and he sold a pair of horses and his father's bee-farm, to raise the money to celebrate his wedding. His brother Terenti, a timid, silent, humpbacked youth, with unusually long arms, was no hindrance to his mode of life; his mother lay sick on the stove, and from there only called to him with hoarse foreboding voice, "Accursed one! Take heed to your soul. Come to your senses."
"Don't worry yourself, my dear mother," answered Jakov. "Father will put in a word for me with the Almighty."
At first, for close on a year, Jakov lived in peace and content with his wife, and even took to working, but then began to loaf again, disappeared from the house for a month at a time, and came back to his wife, worn out, bruised and hungry.
Jakov's mother died; at the funeral, in a drunken fit he assaulted the Starost, his old enemy, and was arrested in consequence, and imprisoned. His term of imprisonment at an end, he reappeared in the village, gloomy and ill-tempered. The village people hated him still more and extended their hatred to his family, especially to the silent, hump-backed Terenti who had been the sport of the boys and girls from his childhood. They called Jakov jail-bird and thief, but Terenti, monster and wizard. Terenti endured insult and mockery silently, but Jakov broke out in open threats, "All right, just wait a bit, I'll teach you."
He was close on forty years of age when a conflagration broke out in the village; he was accused of incendiarism and sent, a prisoner, to Siberia.
Jakov's wife, who lost her reason at the time of the fire, was left in the care of Terenti, and with her, her son Ilya, a boy of ten, sturdy, black-eyed, and serious beyond his years. Whenever the lad appeared in the village streets, the other children ran after him, throwing stones at him, and the bigger ones would shout, "Ah! the young devil the prison brat, bad luck to you!"
Terenti, unfitted for laborious work, dealt up to the time of the fire in tar, needles and thread, and such small wares, but the catastrophe which destroyed half the village made an end both of the Lunevs' house and Terenti's whole stock-in-trade, so that all the Lunevs then possessed in the world amounted to one horse and thirty-three roubles in money.
As soon as Terenti found that his native village would offer him no way whatever to earn a living, he entrusted his sister-in-law to the care of an old peasant woman at fifty kopecks a month, bought a ricketty old cart, and placed his nephew in it, determined to make for the chief town of the district, where he hoped for some assistance from a distant relative, Petrusha Filimonov, a servant in a small tavern.
Secretly and like a thief in the night, Terenti left his home. He guided his horse silently, often looking back with his large dark eyes. The horse trotted on, the cart jolted from side to side and Ilya nestled into the hay, and soon slept the deep sleep of childhood.
In the middle of the night the boy was awakened by a strange terrifying sound, like the howl of a wolf. It was a clear night, the cart was standing at the outskirts of a wood, and the horse moved round it cropping the dewy grass. A great pine tree, its highest branches scorched, stood far apart in the plain, as though driven out from the forest. The boy's eager eyes looked anxiously for his uncle; but through the quiet night from time to time the only distant sound was the dull thud of the horse's hoofs, or the noise of its breathing like heavy sighs, and the same mysterious terrifying sound filled the air, and frightened the lad.
"Uncle?" he called softly.
"What is it?" answered Terenti, at once, and the doleful sound ceased suddenly.
"Where are you?"
"Here. Go to sleep again."
Then Ilya saw his uncle, sitting on a mound at the edge of the wood, like a black tree-stump rising out of the earth.
"I'm frightened," said the boy.
"What then—frightened? Why? there's nothing here."
"Some one was crying."
"You've been dreaming," said the hunchback softly.
"No! truly, he was crying."
"A wolf perhaps, far away. Go to sleep again."
But Ilya could sleep no more. He was frightened at the clear stillness, and in his ears the mournful sound still rang. He looked cautiously at the country round, and then saw that his uncle was gazing in the direction where, over the mountain, far in the midst of the wood, stood a white church with five towers, the large round moon shining brightly above it. Ilya knew that this was the church of Romodanov, and that two versts from it nearer to them, in the wood above the valley, lay their village Kitschnaja.
"We haven't come far," he said, thoughtfully.
"What?" asked his uncle.
"We must get on further, I said, some one might come."
Ilya nodded in the direction of the village with a look of hate.
"We'll get on presently," replied his uncle.
And again all was quiet round about. Ilya squatted with his knees up to his chin, supported himself against the front of the cart and began to gaze in the same direction as his uncle. The village was not visible in the dense black shadow of the forest, but it seemed to him that he saw clearly every house and all its people, and the old white willow by the well in the middle of the street. Against the willow's roots lay his father bound with a rope, his shirt torn to rags, his hands tied behind his back, his naked breast thrust forward, and his head as though it had grown to the willow stem. He lay motionless as a dead man, and looked with terrible eyes at the peasants, crowding before the house of the Starost, There were very many, all angry, they shouted, cursed him——. The memory troubled the boy, and a lump came in his throat. He felt he must soon cry for sorrow and the coldness of the night, but he did not wish to disturb his uncle, and mastering himself he huddled his little body closer together.
Suddenly a low wail sounded again. First a deep sigh, then sobs, then loud, unspeakable lamentation.
The boy shivered with terror and stared round him. But the sound quivered again through the air and grew in volume.
"Uncle! Is it you crying?" called Ilya.
Terenti neither spoke nor moved.
Then the boy sprang from the cart, ran to his uncle, fell in front of him, clasped his knees, and burst into tears. He heard his uncle's voice broken by sobs.
"They've driven us out—driven us out. Oh! God! Where shall we go? Where? oh!"
But the boy said, swallowing down his tears:
"Wait—when I grow up—I'll show them—just wait."
He cried his sorrow out and then fell asleep. His uncle lifted him in his arms and laid him in the cart, but he himself went apart again and cried aloud once more, lamenting in bitter agony.