"Come in," invited a feeble voice behind the door, but Vasya did not wish to go in. He did not wish to do anything tedious, unless of course there was some benefit to it, which was very different. By what right was he summoned again, he wanted to know, and why on this of all nights? Gasha was waiting, the banquet waiting, everyone waiting to congratulate him, he decided with a self-pleasing sniff.
One long look in the hall mirror reassured Vasya anyone could see he was dressed for a special occasion. His jacket was the most modern cut yet cunningly reminiscent of the Absquare style of the Tsars, with a narrow red sash for just the proper touch of ceremony. This was clearly no time for another useless sermon ...
"Are you out there?" returned the wearisome voice.
In exasperation Vasya wondered if the old man would ever tire of this, and with an air of condescending majesty stepped through a creaking door. Once inside he was surprised to find the furniture moved about to accommodate a bedside nurse, a sign the end was nearer than expected. That this might be his final summons sustained Vasya, and he smiled ever-so-slightly as he reached for the hand extended him. For an awkward moment there was only stillness.
Finally the decrepit figure in the bed stirred beneath heavy blankets. Eventually its raspy voice rose above the crackle of the fireplace, "So you came after all."
Vasya answered rudely. "Had you any doubt? Have I not been here twice already? And always when there is other urgent business. Can you not see I have a dinner tonight?"
"But surely you have dinner every night, Vasya. Your wife is famous for her reliability and devotion to you."
Normally Vasya relished such praise for his admirable wife, his clever marriage, but tonight there was no time for vain flatteries. He stepped back from the musty bed and began to pace. "I told you of this last time, priest. This is especially important to me. It is the dinner for my advance to the Ministry, and everyone worth inviting is to be there." At those words the face on the pillow seemed to frown disapprovingly but in the shadows of the sputtering lamp Vasya could not be certain. He resented it, nevertheless.
Then the dreaded sermon began.
"This advancement, Vasya, it is truly what you want?"
Such a thing only a foolish old man might ask, or a priest too long in the teaching of humility. Vasya stood his ground. "Let us say I have been anxious. My father never advanced so at my age, yet in a week it will be official and I will make preparations for the move to Sevastopol."
"You celebrate early?"
"Have no fear on that account. Fedor has been the best possible husband to Lisa and a useful friend to us all. It was he who told me of the rumors and I have checked them out at the court."
At this the old priest rose slightly from the pillow, "It is good to marry such useful friends, no?" And Vasya was again annoyed, this time by the obvious sarcasm in the question. Striding to the window now he chose the better of two chairs, spreading his wet cloak across the lesser. No matter that it dampened the chair. It was after all a pauper's chair.
He gazed at the window, then his watch, and finally the priest. "Just what is my business here tonight? Neither of us grows younger, and I at least have people waiting for me at home."
Ignoring his rude implication, his host coughed up something distasteful and clutched the bedcovers tighter. "It's cold out tonight, no? Very cold. I have not seen its like all winter, but from your blue lips I see you know this already."
Vasya sat unmoved, unapproachable.
"Ah, what use civility?" wheezed the tired figure in the bed. "This hour grows long and my time short so I will tell you. Vasya, I sent for you in this terrible weather to hear a dying man's confession."
The guest sat upright. "A confession! Why must I hear your confession? You are the priest!"
"Yes I am the priest, but it is not my confession I want you to hear."
Vasya swore impatiently, rising, demanding, "For Christ's sake whose then?"
His tormentor sipped a drink, cleared his throat, and said at last, "That of Ivan Ilych, your father."
The air was suddenly very still.
As the old priest look on expectantly, Vasya turned to stare into the fire. For how long he did not know, but he watched mesmerized as one log burned black then split and flared back to life. For a time no one spoke, and then ...
"Did you hear me?"
Of course Vasya did hear, but didn't know what to say. Now he looked to the yard outside. Beyond yellowed glass clean white snow was falling, lights from town winked through swaying branches, icy fields shimmered under a bright moon. It seemed just an inch away was a glittering world that had no dark past, only a bright future. Vasya longed to be in it.
Then a shrill wind reminded him the carriage ride had indeed been cold. He had shivered under his clothes then and the snow was getting deeper. It occurred to Vasya it would be difficult to leave now, that this room with its warm fire and comfortable chairs was some sort of trap. Yes, a very clever one he decided, and he'd foolishly walked right into it. Vasya turned to see the priest had followed his gaze out into the storm and was nodding at his predicament.
Vasya was about to speak when the nurse appeared with a modest dinner for her patient. It would hardly serve as an appetizer at his banquet, everything fitting neatly on the smallest of trays. A soup bowl and bread, thin slice of fruit, some sort of gray bottle with odd markings. The nurse got all this into the old man with painful slowness. Everything seemed to be happening slowly while Vasya's celebration languished in his absence. Finally she left and the old man spoke.
"Your father confessed many regrets, Vasya, and you follow him with a heavy tread."
Vasya exploded freely. "There you are wrong! I share none of his failings!"
The outburst shocked the old priest, who struggled up on one elbow. The firelight fell full upon him now, revealing hollow cheeks carved into a sallow face. Vasya had seen it but dimly before and was in turn shocked by the look of it. Calm was momentarily restored.
"Accept my apologies, priest. I seldom act so, but am wet and hungry and anxious to get about my business."
Applying a dry tongue to cracked lips the gaunt form sank back into the bed once more. A minute passed before it stirred again. "Vasya, I am making my peace, as your father did before me. May God forgive me for waiting this long."
The visitor drew closer. "You said it was my father's confession I was to hear. Now which is it, yours or his, and how does either concern me?"
"It is his and mine. It was a promise I made to your father little Vasya, that I might one day spare you his fate."
"His fate? HIS fate? My father destroyed himself by a foolish injury. When he fell from a ladder our fortunes fell alongside him Mother says it was the sort of accident only a foolish man makes, when he hasn't sense to have others do what he is above doing."
"Is that what Praskovya says?" "Of course. I have heard it a thousand times." Vasya felt his anger returning. He loosened his chaffing collar and reached for a familiar decanter, though no one had offered. "My father's fate was his own undoing. We had a man to do such things for us. Father should have used him."
Tired eyes followed him about the room.
"I do not need your sermons, priest. I only come because you were there to comfort him at the end, if anything could be called comfort in such a terrible state. Lord how I remember the screaming, we at one end of the house with doors closed, he at the other. Nor was I allowed to go to him. Mother wouldn't hear of it. How she suffered till he died."
The old man half-raised one hand in a dismissive wave. It was apparent he didn't share Vasya's sympathy for the mother, but Vasya chose to ignore it. The priest had some grudge against Praskovya ever since his father died, and now was not the time to dwell on that. Then a new thought.
"This confession. Did he speak of me?" It was asked indifferently, almost callously, but there was softness in the tone. When the priest gave no immediate answer Vasya's look repeated the question.
"Help me to the fire, Vasya. Bring that chair and blanket over. No, no, you stay in the soft one. These old bones are past the need for a feathered roost. The other will do." Vasya complied. At first he tried to make a rush of it but the old man nearly fell, so it was all done with great difficulty, but finally it was done. His banquet would simply have to wait, he decided. They had waited this long, no one would start without the guest of honor, so let them wait.
The priest nodded in appreciation. "You always were kind when given the chance, Vasya. That gave me hope, the hope you would never need this final talk. Only your immediate departure could make me tell it even now so it was luck you mentioned your promotion last visit." The face wrinkled into a smile. "You see you've no one but yourself to blame for me bringing you here in this weather. There's too much pride in you to conceal a promotion, Vasya. You boasted of it. I have always cautioned you against pride." A look of self-rebuke crossed Vasya, who turned back to the fire. When a loud crack sent embers over the grate several landed near his foot. He snuffed them out.
"Tell me, priest, how am I following my father's steps when we are nothing alike?"
"You are his very twin, Vasya. Any fool can see that."
"Then I am not a fool at least," said he with a grin. "Yet I would be a remarkable one, for in three years I accomplished what took my father seven, in six I have moved ten ahead of him. So if you are comparing us, remember by any measure I am the greater success."
"Yes, Vasya, any measure save one."
"Name it!" But there was no chance. The nurse reappeared to feel for fevers, there were none, and ask if anything was needed, nothing was. Vasya tired of her interruptions and demanded she leave them be, whereupon she looked to her charge, who nodded, and she conveniently disappeared.
"Now priest, out with it all. Out with the lesson in morality, your remaining cautions, talk of pride, talk of confessions, talk of the weather, before I lose patience again." He filled his glass once more and downed it whole.
"Yes, you shall hear it all now," and the priest smiled at something which eluded Vasya. It was of course Vasya's demand to hear the very sermon he at first refused. The trap was sprung.
"That day your father died, let's see it must have been twenty years now, he was in great pain."
"I know as much. He was in pain for months."
"Pain in his heart, Vasya, for a life not lived, a life that never was. Until the morning he died he was a fool, but only that long. Ivan Ilych died a man of wisdom." It was the second time his father's name had been mentioned. At home it remained unspoken for years, but somehow a name outlives a man, and Vasya began to remember.
"You have posed that riddle many times priest, that he lived the life of a perfect fool but did not die like one. We never made sense of that, none of us."
"Nine-tenths of wisdom is being wise in time, Vasya. In his last hours your father found what mattered is not what he took from life but what it gave him."
Vasya glanced at his watch, shrugged, and removed his wet boots to place them near the fire. "So this is a lesson in philosophy," muttered the younger man.
"No, a lesson in accounts," replied the older. "Your mother tells you he gave his life for a curtain, but it was lost long before that. For many years he sacrificed his life for meaningless trash, Vasya. To him the mere appearance of success was its own reward."
Vasya grimaced because he shared that peculiar measuring stick, knowing full well appearances were important matters in official positions.
"He married your mother for all the proper reasons, Vasya, but none of the right ones."
"I warn you, priest, watch what you say. My mother is ..." he was going to say a saint, but his heart wasn't in the remark. "Do continue."
"She was quite pretty in her youth, Praskovya, and everyone said she would make him a fine wife so Ivan convinced himself this was so. And she did love him when they danced, but when the dance was over so was the marriage. He found that out too late."
"You tell me he did not love her? This was his confession? I was only a child at the time but heard as much from my sister! It seemed so obvious to all around us I wonder he even thought to mention it."
The old priest shivered just a bit and covered his shoulders now. "Then there was his work. In his career he was adaptable as a chameleon, Vasya, yet each time he changed coats he lost a little of his true color. Do you understand what I am saying?"
"Your father had a gift, Vasya, a gift you share. Neither cold nor wild like his brothers, neither destined for greatness nor for obscurity, he walked the line between. He never left that narrow road; it was all by careful calculation. To impress those who could open doors to him he even wore just the proper clothes." The old man reached a bony hand across and tugged at Vasya's sleeve, giving him cause to wince and withdraw.
"Your father would visit the districts to demonstrate his virtues and win reputation, would alternate between dignity and amusement at the whim of his surroundings. When he became a magistrate he even cut off his tail of old acquaintances to grow a new one. And when reforms came to the system and new men were needed, Ivan became such a man. In every new town, Vasya, he took on the tone of important people in that town. In everything he did, Vasya, he made himself look exactly like he belonged there. These are but a few of the things he confessed to me."
"It is no crime to do commendable work, priest. Indeed it is recommended as the best possible road to advancement."
"And so it is, to advancement, but not happiness."
"There you are wrong, priest. It has been MY way to happiness. Besides what is there to happiness? Does it feed us when we are hungry? Warm us on a night like this?" Vasya leaned back and stretched broadly now, his feet moved to the cushion as he linked and stretched long fingers. His social mask came off as he settled into the talk. "Can YOU show me happiness?"
The question had been somewhat expected. There came a shuffling sound as the old man fumbled for something on the side table. Twice the object fell from his grip, but he managed at last to hold it to the light. "It took me some time to find this again, Vasya. You remember it?"
A trinket hung there on a tarnished chain and in the firelight sparkled like a jewel. In fact it was a jewel, the coarsest cheapest thing ever to be called by that name, a bit of smoky glass, but more precious than diamond to Vasya the boy. A girl at church gave it to him when his father died and they became friends. When Mother chose a new church more acceptable to Fedor's family he lost track of her, but Vasya remembered asking the priest to return the treasure. Mother had insisted.
Now here it was resurrecting still more painful memories. The priest dangled it invitingly, saying: "Sara was her name. She never returned after your family left my church. I'm afraid I don't know what happened to her." At this the old man's gaze sharpened considerably, looking for something lost inside Vasya, something covered in gloom and hardness.
Sara. That was it, Sara. He'd forgotten her almost entirely.
"She adored you, Vasya. The whole congregation knew it. When you cried over your father, she cried for you behind the pews."
This was too much. The priest was full of cunning tricks! Vasya snatched the trinket and hurled it into the fire. "You are making this all about me. I am not here for that; get to the confession."
"Patience, dear Vasya. Pain is but a marker on the way to salvation."
As if for emphasis, a backdraft swept down through the chimney just then, and smoke filled the room. It took Vasya some effort to feel blindly for the damper, to adjust it, and before the ashes settled the priest fell into a fit of coughing from which it seemed he might never recover. Vasya poured wine to soothe the old man's barren throat, for which the priest touched his cuff in gratitude. This time Vasya did not withdraw. When he at last sat back down he saw himself in the bright decanter, peered closer as was his habit, only to turn away suddenly. It was still snowing outside.
The priest leaned closer to brush some ashes off Vasya's sash and spoke almost tenderly. "Vasya, your father loved you most of all, and it is all about you." Then leaned away once more.
"Ivan Ilych was a friend of mine. Did you know that?"
Preposterous! All his young life Vasya heard bickering before church, reasons his father gave for missing sermons, Mother's embarrassed excuses for going without him.
"My father was no dutiful member of your church or any other, priest. He taught me salvation is in ourselves and our progress in this world. I cannot believe you were close."
"True I confronted him for missing sermons. In fact I did so often, and he as often let me know exactly what you say, that our success in the world sets our course for us. It was vanity to think I could win him over through more talk and we had many disagreements, but eventually we became closer through them. The Lord's ways are marvelous indeed."
"Then that is why you were sent for, and not some nearby priest? Why he shared his secrets with you? Just how long was this confession?"
"He spoke for two hours."
Two hours! He wondered how his father could fill so much time. The longest conversation at dinner lasted but one. Even bedtime readings were less. Vasya mouthed the words.
"Come closer, Vasya. My voice is dying and I may soon follow. Still there is time for us to give each other one more chance." And the night grew long.
As midnight winds marked earth's final spin, an old man unburdened himself at last of a legacy long dormant. He spoke of a friend from long ago, now missed. Of a man everyone envied, then forgot. And how a man without roots may blow wherever fortune carries him. He peeled back layer upon layer for Vasya, revealed how others chose Ivan's career, selected his wife, measured his success.
And before it was over Ivan's son recognized himself in this dismal reflection, and for once could not look away. With no one around to color the facts he learned of his father's true failures, not the imagined ones. He heard far less about failed organs and far more about failed marriages, even more about misspent youth, and lastly of the regrets buried alongside his father.
There were of course many interruptions of coughing and hoarseness, long silences while the priest rested. But on he labored with his breathing and his tale, until at last they came to the moment Ivan Ilych stood upon the brink and looked over his accounts. The clock above the fireplace struck six and in a voice still barely audible the priest drew the visit to a close.
"That is why he summoned me, Vasya. You were too young so he bade me keep his story safe . . . safe against the day it might save you. Now at last his confession has been truly heard. Now at last he may rest in peace."
The heavy burden off him the priest stood under his own power now, returned to his bed, and closed his eyes. Vasya set the chairs back and drained the glass on the table. His boots were laden with ashes but he pulled them on uncaring; his smudged cloak he tossed over a shoulder.
No farewells were required
now, and the nurse let him pass as he stepped into the chill morning air.
Snow crunched noisily, and nothing that was visible when he arrived still
shown through the blanket of white powder. Every trace of his earlier
comings and goings had been obliterated during the night. It was like
a new world. Yes, entirely new.