The story begins with the childhood and exceptional and accomplished youth of Prince Stepan Kasatsky. The young man is destined for great things. The blow to his pride is massive, and he retreats to the arms of Russian Orthodoxy and becomes a monk. Many years of humility and doubt follow. He is ordered to become a hermit. Despite his being removed from the world, he is still remembered for having so remarkably transformed his life.
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Not like that—how clumsy you are! More, more—like that! But you need not squeeze them! Makovkina got out of the sledge, and told them to drive on. They tried to dissuade her, but she grew irritable and ordered them to go on. When the sledges had gone she went up the path in her white dogskin coat. The lawyer got out and stopped to watch her. His life in solitude was hard—not on account of the fasts and the prayers they were no hardship to him but on account of an inner conflict he had not at all anticipated.
The sources of that conflict were two: doubts, and the lust of the flesh. And these two enemies always appeared together. It seemed to him that they were two foes, but in reality they were one and the same. As soon as doubt was gone so was the lustful desire.
But thinking them to be two different fiends he fought them separately. There is lust, of course: even the saints had to fight that—Saint Anthony and others. But they had faith, while I have moments, hours, and days, when it is absent. Why does the whole world, with all its delights, exist if it is sinful and must be renounced? Why hast Thou created this temptation? Is it not rather a temptation that I wish to abandon all the joys of earth and prepare something for myself there where perhaps there is nothing?
And it is you who wish to become a saint! But as soon as he started to pray he saw himself vividly as he had been at the Monastery, in a majestic post in biretta and mantle, and he shook his head. It is deception. I may deceive others, but not myself or God. I am not a majestic man, but a pitiable and ridiculous one! Then he dropped the folds of the cassock again and began reading the prayers, making the sign of the cross and prostrating himself.
He shook himself, and went on reading. Help thou my unbelief! As one replaces an object of insecure equilibrium, so he carefully replaced his belief on its shaky pedestal and carefully stepped back from it so as not to shake or upset it.
He crossed himself and lay down on the bedding on his narrow bench, tucking his summer cassock under his head. He fell asleep at once, and in his light slumber he seemed to hear the tinkling of sledge bells. He did not know whether he was dreaming or awake, but a knock at the door aroused him. He sat up, distrusting his senses, but the knock was repeated.
Can it be true, as I have read in the Lives of the Saints, that the devil takes on the form of a woman? And a tender, timid, pleasant voice. He sank down, his hair hanging over his face, and pressed his head, already going bald in front, to the cold damp strip of drugget on the draughty floor. He read the psalm old Father Pimon had told him warded off temptation. He easily raised his light and emaciated body on his strong sinewy legs and tried to continue saying his prayers, but instead of doing so he involuntarily strained his hearing.
He wished to hear more. All was quiet. From the corner of the roof regular drops continued to fall into the tub below. Outside was a mist and fog eating into the snow that lay on the ground. It was still, very still. He could hardly breathe. He put his hands to both sides of his face and peered between them. Fog, mist, a tree, and—just opposite him—she herself. Yes, there, a few inches from him, was the sweet, kindly frightened face of a woman in a cap and a coat of long white fur, leaning towards him.
Their eyes met with instant recognition: not that they had ever known one another, they had never met before, but by the look they exchanged they—and he particularly—felt that they knew and understood one another. After that glance to imagine her to be a devil and not a simple, kindly, sweet, timid woman, was impossible. Why have you come? I tell you I have lost my way. I am quite frozen. He stepped back from the window and looked at an icon of the Saviour in His crown of thorns.
Lord, help me! Then he went to the door, and opening it into the tiny porch, felt for the hook that fastened the outer door and began to lift it. He heard steps outside. She was coming from the window to the door. His hands trembled, and he could not raise the hook of the tightly closed door. Let me in! I am all wet. I am frozen! You are thinking about saving your soul and are letting me freeze to death A strong smell of fine scent, which he had long not encountered, struck him.
She went through the little porch into the cell where he lived. He closed the outer door without fastening the hook, and stepped in after her. Lord, have mercy on me a sinner! She stood in the middle of the room, moisture dripping from her to the floor as she looked him over. Her eyes were laughing. But you see what a position I am in. It all came about from our starting from town for a sledge-drive, and my making a bet that I would walk back by myself from the Vorobevka to the town.
But then I lost my way, and if I had not happened to come upon your cell She had not expected him to be at all such as he was. He was not as handsome as she had imagined, but was nevertheless beautiful in her eyes: his greyish hair and beard, slightly curling, his fine, regular nose, and his eyes like glowing coal when he looked at her, made a strong impression on her.
He saw that she was lying. She had not got at all wet when standing under the window, and had said so only as a pretext to get him to let her in. But she really had stepped into the puddle at the door, and her left foot was wet up to the ankle and her overshoe full of water. She sat down on his bed—a bench only covered by a bit of carpet—and began to take off her boots. The little cell seemed to her charming.
The narrow little room, some seven feet by nine, was as clean as glass. There was nothing in it but the bench on which she was sitting, the book-shelf above it, and a lectern in the corner. A sheepskin coat and a cassock hung on nails by the door. Above the lectern was the little lamp and an icon of Christ in His crown of thorns. The room smelt strangely of perspiration and of earth. It all pleased her—even that smell. Her wet feet, especially one of them, were uncomfortable, and she quickly began to take off her boots and stockings without ceasing to smile, pleased not so much at having achieved her object as because she perceived that she had abashed that charming, strange, striking, and attractive man.
Father Sergius! Or how does one call you? I should simply have fallen ill. I am all wet and my feet are like ice. I am only here till daybreak. She tugged at it, but could not get it off. The absurdity of it struck her and she began to laugh almost inaudibly. But knowing that he would hear her laughter and would be moved by it just as she wished him to be, she laughed louder, and her laughter—gay, natural, and kindly—really acted on him just in the way she wished.
As soon as he put his face to the window and saw me, he understood and knew. The glimmer of it was in his eyes and remained there. He began to love me and desired me. To remove those long stockings fastened with elastic it was necessary to raise her skirts.
The steady muttering continued and also a sound of moving. He is thinking of me just as I am thinking of him. He is thinking of these feet of mine with the same feeling that I have!
She sat a while like that with her arms round her knees and looking pensively before her.