Twenty years ago I was obliged—in my capacity of private inspector—to make the circuit of all my aunt’s rather numerous estates. The parish priests, with whom I regarded it as my duty to make acquaintance, proved to be individuals of pretty much one pattern, and made after one model, as it were. At length, in about the last of the estates which I was inspecting, I hit upon a priest who did not resemble his brethren. He was a very aged man, almost decrepit; and had it not been for the urgent entreaties of his parishioners, who loved and respected him, he would long before have petitioned to be retired that he might rest. Two peculiarities impressed me in Father Alexyei (that was the priest’s name). In the first place, he not only asked nothing for himself but announced plainly that he required nothing; and, in the second place, I have never beheld in any human face a more sorrowful, thoroughly indifferent—what is called an “overwhelmed”—expression. The features of that face were of the ordinary rustic type: a wrinkled forehead, small grey eyes, a large nose, a wedge-shaped beard, a swarthy, sunburned skin.... But the expression! ... the expression!... In that dim gaze life barely burned, and sadly at that; and his voice also was, somehow, lifeless and dim.
I fell ill and kept my bed for several days. Father Alexyei dropped in to see me in the evenings, not to chat, but to play “fool." The game of cards seemed to divert him more than it did me. One day, after having been left “the fool” several times in succession (which delighted Father Alexyei not a little), I turned the conversation on his past life, on the afflictions which had left on him such manifest traces. Father Alexyei remained obdurate for a long time at first, but ended by relating to me his story. He must have taken a liking to me for some reason or other. Otherwise he would not have been so frank with me.
I shall endeavour to transmit his story in his own words. Father Alexyei talked very simply and intelligently, without any seminary or provincial tricks and turns of speech. It was not the first time I had noticed that Russians, of all classes and callings, who have been violently shattered and humbled express themselves precisely in such language.
... I had a good and sedate wife [thus he began], I loved her heartily, and we begat eight children. One of my sons became a bishop, and died not so very long ago, in his diocese. I shall now tell you about my other son,—Yakoff was his name. I sent him to the seminary in the town of T——, and soon began to receive the most comforting reports about him. He was the best pupil in all the branches! Even at home, in his boyhood, he had been distinguished for his diligence and discretion; a whole day would sometimes pass without one’s hearing him ... he would be sitting all the time over his book, reading. He never caused me and my wife the slightest displeasure; he was a meek lad. Only sometimes he was thoughtful beyond his years, and his health was rather weak. Once something remarkable happened to him. He left the house at daybreak, on St. Peter’s day, and was gone almost all the morning. At last he returned. My wife and I ask him: “Where hast thou been?”