In the village church of Verhny Zaprudy mass was just over. The people had begun moving and were trooping out of church. The only one who did not move was Andrey Andreyitch, a shopkeeper and old inhabitant of Verhny Zaprudy. He stood waiting, with his elbows on the railing of the right choir. His fat and shaven face, covered with indentations left by pimples, expressed on this occasion two contradictory feelings: resignation in the face of inevitable destiny, and stupid, unbounded disdain for the smocks and striped kerchiefs passing by him. As it was Sunday, he was dressed like a dandy. He wore a long cloth overcoat with yellow bone buttons, blue trousers not thrust into his boots, and sturdy goloshes – the huge clumsy goloshes only seen on the feet of practical and prudent persons of firm religious convictions.
His torpid eyes, sunk in fat, were fixed upon the ikon stand. He saw the long familiar figures of the saints, the verger Matvey puffing out his cheeks and blowing out the candles, the darkened candle stands, the threadbare carpet, the sacristan Lopuhov running impulsively from the altar and carrying the holy bread to the churchwarden. . All these things he had seen for years, and seen over and over again like the five fingers of his hand. . . There was only one thing, however, that was somewhat strange and unusual. Father Grigory, still in his vestments, was standing at the north door, twitching his thick eyebrows angrily.
“Who is it he is winking at? God bless him!” thought the shopkeeper. “And he is beckoning with his finger! And he stamped his foot! What next! What’s the matter, Holy Queen and Mother! Whom does he mean it for?”
Andrey Andreyitch looked round and saw the church completely deserted. There were some ten people standing at the door, but they had their backs to the altar.
“Do come when you are called! Why do you stand like a graven image?” he heard Father Grigory’s angry voice. “I am calling you.”
The shopkeeper looked at Father Grigory’s red and wrathful face, and only then realized that the twitching eyebrows and beckoning finger might refer to him. He started, left the railing, and hesitatingly walked towards the altar, tramping with his heavy goloshes.
“Andrey Andreyitch, was it you asked for prayers for the rest of Mariya’s soul?” asked the priest, his eyes angrily transfixing the shopkeeper’s fat, perspiring face.
“Then it was you wrote this? You?” And Father Grigory angrily thrust before his eyes the little note.
And on this little note, handed in by Andrey Andreyitch before mass, was written in big, as it were staggering, letters:
“For the rest of the soul of the servant of God, the harlot Mariya.”
“Yes, certainly I wrote it, . . ” answered the shopkeeper.
“How dared you write it?” whispered the priest, and in his husky whisper there was a note of wrath and alarm.
The shopkeeper looked at him in blank amazement; he was perplexed, and he, too, was alarmed. Father Grigory had never in his life spoken in such a tone to a leading resident of Verhny Zaprudy. Both were silent for a minute, staring into each other’s face. The shopkeeper’s amazement was so great that his fat face spread in all directions like spilt dough.
“How dared you?” repeated the priest.
“Wha . . what?” asked Andrey Andreyitch in bewilderment.
“You don’t understand?” whispered Father Grigory, stepping back in astonishment and clasping his hands. “What have you got on your shoulders, a head or some other object? You send a note up to the altar, and write a word in it which it would be unseemly even to utter in the street! Why are you rolling your eyes? Surely you know the meaning of the word?”
“Are you referring to the word harlot?” muttered the shopkeeper, flushing crimson and blinking. “But you know, the Lord in His mercy . . . forgave this very thing, . . . forgave a harlot. . . . He has prepared a place for her, and indeed from the life of the holy saint, Mariya of Egypt, one may see in what sense the word is used — excuse me . . .”
The shopkeeper wanted to bring forward some other argument in his justification, but took fright and wiped his lips with his sleeve
“So that’s what you make of it!” cried Father Grigory, clasping his hands. “But you see God has forgiven her — do you understand? He has forgiven, but you judge her, you slander her, call her by an unseemly name, and whom! Your own deceased daughter! Not only in Holy Scripture, but even in worldly literature you won’t read of such a sin! I tell you again, Andrey, you mustn’t be over-subtle! No, no, you mustn’t be over-subtle, brother! If God has given you an inquiring mind, and if you cannot direct it, better not go into things. . . Don’t go into things, and hold your peace!”
“But you know, she, . . excuse my mentioning it, was an actress!” articulated Andrey Andreyitch, overwhelmed.
“An actress! But whatever she was, you ought to forget it all now she is dead, instead of writing it on the note.”
“Just so, . .” the shopkeeper assented.
“You ought to do penance,” boomed the deacon from the depths of the altar, looking contemptuously at Andrey Andreyitch’s embarrassed face, “that would teach you to leave off being so clever! Your daughter was a well-known actress. There were even notices of her death in the newspapers. . . Philosopher!”
“To be sure, . . certainly,” muttered the shopkeeper, “the word is not a seemly one; but I did not say it to judge her, Father Grigory, I only meant to speak spiritually, . . . that it might be clearer to you for whom you were praying. They write in the memorial notes the various callings, such as the infant John, the drowned woman Pelagea, the warrior Yegor, the murdered Pavel, and so on. . .I meant to do the same.”
“It was foolish, Andrey! God will forgive you, but beware another time. Above all, don’t be subtle, but think like other people. Make ten bows and go your way.”
“I obey,” said the shopkeeper, relieved that the lecture was over, and allowing his face to resume its expression of importance and dignity. “Ten bows? Very good, I understand. But now, Father, allow me to ask you a favor. . . Seeing that I am, anyway, her father, . . you know yourself, whatever she was, she was still my daughter, so I was, . . excuse me, meaning to ask you to sing the requiem today. And allow me to ask you, Father Deacon!”
“Well, that’s good,” said Father Grigory, taking off his vestments. “That I commend. I can approve of that! Well, go your way. We will come out immediately.”
Andrey Andreyitch walked with dignity from the altar, and with a solemn, requiem-like expression on his red face took his stand in the middle of the church. The verger Matvey set before him a little table with the memorial food upon it, and a little later the requiem service began.
There was perfect stillness in the church. Nothing could be heard but the metallic click of the censer and slow singing. . . . Near Andrey Andreyitch stood the verger Matvey, the midwife Makaryevna, and her one-armed son Mitka. There was no one else. The sacristan sang badly in an unpleasant, hollow bass, but the tune and the words were so mournful that the shopkeeper little by little lost the expression of dignity and was plunged in sadness. He thought of his Mashutka, . . . he remembered she had been born when he was still a lackey in the service of the owner of Verhny Zaprudy. In his busy life as a lackey he had not noticed how his girl had grown up. That long period during which she was being shaped into a graceful creature, with a little flaxen head and dreamy eyes as big as kopeck-pieces passed unnoticed by him. She had been brought up like all the children of favorite lackeys, in ease and comfort in the company of the young ladies. The gentry, to fill up their idle time, had taught her to read, to write, to dance; he had had no hand in her bringing up. Only from time to time casually meeting her at the gate or on the landing of the stairs, he would remember that she was his daughter, and would, so far as he had leisure for it, begin teaching her the prayers and the scripture. Oh, even then he had the reputation of an authority on the church rules and the holy scriptures! Forbidding and stolid as her father’s face was, yet the girl listened readily. She repeated the prayers after him yawning, but on the other hand, when he, hesitating and trying to express himself elaborately, began telling her stories, she was all attention. Esau’s pottage, the punishment of Sodom, and the troubles of the boy Joseph made her turn pale and open her blue eyes wide.
Afterwards when he gave up being a lackey, and with the money he had saved opened a shop in the village, Mashutka had gone away to Moscow with his master’s family. . . .
Three years before her death she had come to see her father. He had scarcely recognized her. She was a graceful young woman with the manners of a young lady, and dressed like one. She talked cleverly, as though from a book, smoked, and slept till midday. When Andrey Andreyitch asked her what she was doing, she had announced, looking him boldly straight in the face: “I am an actress.” Such frankness struck the former flunkey as the acme of cynicism. Mashutka had begun boasting of her successes and her stage life; but seeing that her father only turned crimson and threw up his hands, she ceased. And they spent a fortnight together without speaking or looking at one another till the day she went away. Before she went away she asked her father to come for a walk on the bank of the river. Painful as it was for him to walk in the light of day, in the sight of all honest people, with a daughter who was an actress, he yielded to her request.
“What a lovely place you live in!” she said enthusiastically. “What ravines and marshes! Good heavens, how lovely my native place is!”
And she had burst into tears.
“The place is simply taking up room, . . .” Andrey Andreyitch had thought, looking blankly at the ravines, not understanding his daughter’s enthusiasm. “There is no more profit from them than milk from a billy-goat.”
And she had cried and cried, drawing her breath greedily with her whole chest, as though she felt she had not a long time left to breathe.
Andrey Andreyitch shook his head like a horse that has been bitten, and to stifle painful memories began rapidly crossing himself. . . .
“Be mindful, O Lord,” he muttered, “of Thy departed servant, the harlot Mariya, and forgive her sins, voluntary or involuntary. . . .”
The unseemly word dropped from his lips again, but he did not notice it: what is firmly imbedded in the consciousness cannot be driven out by Father Grigory’s exhortations or even knocked out by a nail. Makaryevna sighed and whispered something, drawing in a deep breath, while one-armed Mitka was brooding over something. . . .
“Where there is no sickness, nor grief, nor sighing,” droned the sacristan, covering his right cheek with his hand.
Bluish smoke coiled up from the censer and bathed in the broad, slanting patch of sunshine which cut across the gloomy, lifeless emptiness of the church. And it seemed as though the soul of the dead woman were soaring into the sunlight together with the smoke. The coils of smoke like a child’s curls eddied round and round, floating upwards to the window and, as it were, holding aloof from the woes and tribulations of which that poor soul was full.