Father Sergy
by Leo Tolstoy
(narrated by George Guidall)

[Part 3]

V

It was Father Sergy’s sixth year as a hermit, and he was now forty-nine. 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: doubt and the lust of the flesh. And both these foes always appeared together. It seemed to him that they were two different 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 devils he fought them separately.

‘O my God, my God!’ he thought. ‘Why dost thou not grant me faith? 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? Temptation? Is it not rather a temptation that I wish to abandon all the joys of the world and prepare something for myself there where perhaps there is nothing?’ And he became horrified and filled with disgust at himself. ‘Vile creature! And it is you who wish to be a saint!’ he upbraided himself, and he began to pray. But as soon as he started to pray he saw himself vividly as he had been at the monastery, majestic in his klobuk and cope. He shook his head. ‘No, that is not right. It is deception. I may deceive others, but not myself or God. I am not a majestic man, but a pitiable and ridiculous one!’ And he threw back the folds of his cassock and smiled as he looked at his thin legs in their underclothing.

Then he dropped the folds of the cassock again and began reading the prayers, making the sign of the cross and prostrating himself. ‘Can it be that this bed will be my bier?’ he read. And it seemed as if the devil whispered to him: ‘A solitary bed is itself a bier. It’s a lie!’ And in his imagination he saw the shoulders of a widow with whom he had lived. He shook himself and went on reading. Having read the precepts he took up the Gospels, opened the book, and happened on a passage he often repeated and knew by heart: ‘Lord, I believe. Help my unbelief!’ He put away all the doubts that had arisen. As one repositions an object of insecure equilibrium, so he carefully repositioned his belief on its shaky pedestal and carefully stepped back from it so as not to shake or upset it. The blinkers were adjusted again and he felt calm. He repeated his childhood prayer, ‘Lord, take me, take me!’ and he felt not merely at ease, but joyful and moved. 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 in disbelief, but the knock was repeated. Yes, it was a knock close at hand, at his door, and with it the sound of a woman’s voice.

‘My God! Can it be true, as I have read in the Lives of the Saints, that the devil takes on the form of a woman? Yes, it is a woman’s voice, a tender, timid, pleasant voice. Phui!’ And he spat. ‘No, it was only my imagination,’ he assured himself, and he went to the corner where his analoychik* stood, falling on his knees in the regular and habitual manner which of itself gave him consolation and satisfaction. He sank down, his hair hanging over his face, and pressed his head, already going bald in front, to the cold damp piece of rug 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. And suddenly there was a rustling at the window and a voice, that same tender, timid voice which could only belong to an attractive woman, said:

‘Let me in, for Christ’s sake!’

It seemed as though his blood had all rushed to his heart and settled there. He could hardly breathe. ‘Let God arise and let his enemies be scattered …’

‘But I am not the devil!’ It was obvious that the lips that uttered this were smiling. ‘I am not the devil, but only a sinful woman who has lost her way, not figuratively but literally!’ She laughed. ‘I am frozen and beg for shelter.’

He pressed his face to the window, but the little icon-lamp was reflected by it and shone on the whole pane. He put his hands to both sides of his face and peered between them. Fog, mist, a tree, and just there to the right, 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 the devil, and not a simple, kindly, sweet, timid woman, was impossible.

‘Who are you? Why have you come?’ he asked.

‘Do please open the door!’ she replied, with capricious authority. ‘I am frozen. I tell you I have lost my way.’

‘But I am a monk, a hermit.’

‘Oh, do please open the door, or do you wish me to freeze under your window while you say your prayers?’

‘But how have you …’

‘I won’t eat you. For God’s sake let me in! I am quite frozen.’

She really did feel afraid, and said this in an almost tearful voice.

He stepped back from the window and looked at the icon of the Saviour in his crown of thorns. ‘Lord, help me! Lord, help me!’ he exclaimed, crossing himself and bowing low. Then he went to the door, and opening it into the passageway, 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. ‘Ah!’ she suddenly exclaimed, and he understood that she had stepped into the puddle that the dripping from the roof had formed at the threshold. His hands trembled, and he could not raise the hook of the tightly closed door.

‘Oh, what are you doing? Let me in! I am all wet. I am frozen! You are thinking about saving your soul and are letting me freeze to death.’

He jerked the door towards him, raised the hook, and without considering what he was doing, pushed it open with such force that it struck her.

‘Oh, I beg your pardon!’ he suddenly exclaimed, reverting completely to his old manner with ladies.

She smiled on hearing that ‘I beg your pardon’. ‘He is not quite so terrible, after all,’ she thought. ‘It’s all right. It is you who must forgive me,’ she said, stepping past him. ‘I should never have ventured, but for such an extraordinary circumstance.’

‘Please come in,’ he uttered, and stood aside to let her pass him. A strong smell of fine scent, which he had long not encountered, struck him. She went through the passageway into the cell where he lived. He closed the outer door without fastening the hook and stepped in after her.

‘Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner! Lord, have mercy on me a sinner!’* he prayed unceasingly, not merely to himself but involuntarily moving his lips. ‘Please come in,’ he said to her again. She stood in the middle of the room, moisture dripping from her to the floor as she looked him over. Her eyes were laughing.

‘Forgive me for having disturbed your solitude. 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 Vorobyovka to the town. But then I lost my way, and if I had not happened to come upon your cell,’ she began lying, but his face confused her so that she could not continue and became silent. 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.

‘Yes, so,’ he said, looking at her and again lowering his eyes. ‘I will go in there, and this place is at your disposal.’

And taking down the little lamp, he lit a candle, and bowing low to her went into the small cell beyond the partition, and she heard him begin to move something about there. ‘Probably he is barricading himself in from me!’ she thought with a smile, and throwing off her white dog-fur coat she tried to take off her cap, which had become entangled in her hair and in the woven kerchief she was wearing under it. 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 three arshins* wide by four long, was as clean as glass. There was nothing in it but the bench on which she was sitting, the book-shelf above it, and an analoychik in the corner. A sheepskin coat and a cassock hung on nails by the door. Above the analoychik was a vigil light 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. ‘He did not respond, but what of that?’ she said to herself.

‘Father Sergy! Father Sergy! Or how does one call you?’

‘What do you want?’ replied a quiet voice.

‘Please forgive me for disturbing your solitude, but really I could not help it. I should simply have fallen ill. And I don’t know that I won’t now. I am all wet and my feet are like ice.’

‘Forgive me,’ replied the quiet voice. ‘I cannot be of any assistance to you.’

‘I would not have disturbed you if I could have helped it. I am only here till daybreak.’

He did not reply and she heard him muttering something, probably his prayers.

‘You will not be coming in here?’ she asked, smiling. ‘For I must undress to dry myself.’

He did not reply, but continued to read his prayers.

‘Yes, that is a man!’ she thought, getting her dripping boot off with difficulty. 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.

‘Yes, I could love a man like that, such eyes and such a simple noble face, and passionate too despite all the prayers he mutters!’ she thought. ‘You can’t deceive a woman in these things. 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. Yes, desired!’ she said, getting her overshoe and her boot off at last and starting to take off her stockings. To remove those long stockings fastened with elastic it was necessary to raise her skirts. She felt embarrassed and said:

‘Don’t come in!’

But there was no reply from the other side of the wall. The steady muttering continued and also a sound of moving.

‘He is prostrating himself to the ground, no doubt,’ she thought. ‘But he won’t bow himself out of it. 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!’ And she pulled off her wet stockings and put her feet up on the bench, pressing them under her. She sat a while like that with her arms round her knees and looking pensively before her. ‘But it is a desert, here in this silence. No one would ever know …’