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THE PARABLE OF THE SINNER





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Having heard the dying Claudia Ivanovna's confession, Father Theodore Vostrikov, priest of the Church of St. Frol and St. Laurence, left Vorobyaninov's house in a complete daze and the whole way home kept looking round him distractedly and smiling to himself in confusion. His bewilderment became so great in the end that he was almost knocked down by the district-executive-committee motor-car, Gos. No. 1. Struggling out of the cloud of purple smoke issuing from the infernal machine, Father Vostrikov reached the stage of complete distraction, and, despite his venerable rank and middle age, finished the journey at a frivolous half-gallop.
His wife, Catherine, was laying the table for supper. On the days when there was no evening service to conduct, Father Theodore liked to have his supper early. This time, however, to his wife's surprise, the holy father, having taken off his hat and warm padded cassock, skipped past into the bedroom, locked himself in and began chanting the prayer "It Is Meet" in a tuneless voice.
His wife sat down on a chair and whispered in alarm:
"He's up to something again."
Father Theodore's tempestuous soul knew no rest, nor had ever known it. Neither at the time when he was Theo, a pupil of the Russian Orthodox Church school, nor when he was Theodore Ivanych, a bewhiskered student at the college. Having left the college and studied law at the university for three years in 1915 Vostrikov became afraid of the possibility of mobilization and returned to the Church. He was first anointed a deacon, then ordained a priest and appointed to the regional centre of N. But the whole time, at every stage of his clerical and secular career, Father Theodore never lost interest in worldly possessions.
He cherished the dream of possessing his own candle factory. Tormented by the vision of thick ropes of wax winding on to the factory drums, Father Theodore devised various schemes that would bring in enough basic capital to buy a little factory in Samara which he had had his eye on for some time.
Ideas occurred to Father Theodore unexpectedly, and when they did he used to get down to work on the spot. He once started making a marble-like washing-soap; he made pounds and pounds of it, but despite an enormous fat content, the soap would not lather, and it cost twice as much as the Hammer and Plough brand, to boot. For a long time after it remained in the liquid state gradually decomposing on the porch of the house, and whenever his wife, Catherine, passed it, she would wipe away a tear. The soap was eventually thrown into the cesspool.
Reading in a farming magazine that rabbit meat was as tender as chicken, that rabbits were highly prolific, and that a keen farmer could make a mint of money breeding them, Father Theodore immediately acquired half a dozen stud rabbits, and two months later, Nerka the dog, terrified by the incredible number of long-eared creatures filling the yard and house, fled to an unknown destination. However, the wretchedly provincial citizens of the town of N. proved extraordinarily conservative and, with unusual unanimity, refused to buy Vostrikov's rabbits. Then Father Theodore had a talk with his wife and decided to enhance his diet with the rabbit meat that was supposed to be tastier than chicken. The rabbits were roasted whole, turned into rissoles and cutlets, made into soup, served cold for supper and baked in pies. But to no avail. Father Theodore worked it out that even if they switched exclusively to a diet of rabbit, the family could not consume more than forty of the creatures a month, while the monthly increment was ninety, with the number increasing in a geometrical progression.
The Vostrikovs then decided to sell home-cooked meals. Father Theodore spent a whole evening writing out an advertisement in indelible pencil on neatly cut sheets of graph paper, announcing the sale of tasty home-cooked meals prepared in pure butter. The advertisement began "Cheap and Good!" His wife filled an enamel dish with flour-and-water paste, and late one evening the holy father went around sticking the advertisements on all the telegraph poles, and also in the vicinity of state-owned institutions.
The new idea was a great success. Seven people appeared the first day, among them Bendin, the military-commissariat clerk, by whose endeavour the town's oldest monument-a triumphal arch, dating from the time of the Empress Elizabeth-had been pulled down shortly before on the ground that it interfered with the traffic. The dinners were very popular. The next day there were fourteen customers. There was hardly enough time to skin the rabbits. For a whole week things went swimmingly and Father Theodore even considered starting up a small fur-trading business, without a car, when something quite unforeseen took place.
The Hammer and Plough co-operative, which had been shut for three weeks for stock-taking, reopened, and some of the counter hands, panting with the effort, rolled a barrel of rotten cabbage into the yard shared by Father Theodore, and dumped the contents into the cesspool. Attracted by the piquant smell, the rabbits hastened to the cesspool, and the next morning an epidemic broke out among the gentle rodents. It only raged for three hours, but during that time it finished off two hundred and forty adult rabbits and an uncountable number of offspring.
The shocked priest had been depressed for two whole months, and it was only now, returning from Vorobyaninov's house and to his wife's surprise, locking himself in the bedroom, that he regained his spirits. There was every indication that Father Theodore had been captivated by some new idea.
Catherine knocked on the bedroom door with her knuckle. There was no reply, but the chanting grew louder. A moment later the door opened slightly and through the crack appeared Father Theodore's face, brightened by a maidenly flush.
"Let me have a pair of scissors quickly, Mother," snapped Father Theodore.
"But what about your supper? "
"Yes, later on."
Father Theodore grabbed the scissors, locked the door again, and went over to a mirror hanging on the wall in a black scratched frame.
Beside the mirror was an ancient folk-painting, entitled "The Parable of the Sinner", made from a copperplate and neatly hand-painted. The parable had been a great consolation to Vostrikov after the misfortune with the rabbits. The picture clearly showed the transient nature of earthly things. The top row was composed of four drawings with meaningful and consolatory captions in Church Slavonic: Shem saith a prayer, Ham soweth wheat, Japheth enjoyeth power, Death overtaketh all. The figure of Death carried a scythe and a winged hour-glass and looked as if made of artificial limbs and orthopaedic appliances; he was standing on deserted hilly ground with his legs wide apart, and his general appearance made it clear that the fiasco with the rabbits was a mere trifle.
At this moment Father Theodore preferred "Japheth enjoyeth power". The drawing showed a fat, opulent man with a beard sitting on a throne in a small room.
Father Theodore smiled and, looking closely at himself in the mirror, began snipping at his fine beard. The scissors clicked, the hairs fell to the floor, and five minutes later Father Theodore knew he was absolutely no good at beard-clipping. His beard was all askew; it looked unbecoming and even suspicious.
Fiddling about for a while longer, Father Theodore became highly irritated, called his wife, and, handing her the scissors, said peevishly:
"You can help me, Mother. I can't do anything with these rotten hairs."
His wife threw up her hands in astonishment.
"What have you done to yourself?" she finally managed to say.
"I haven't done anything. I'm trimming my beard. It seems to have gone askew just here. . . ."
"Heavens!" said his wife, attacking his curls. "Surely you're not joining the Renovators, Theo dear?"
Father Theodore was delighted that the conversation had taken this turn.
"And why shouldn't I join the Renovators, Mother? They're human-beings, aren't they?"
"Of course they're human-beings," conceded his wife venomously, "but they go to the cinema and pay alimony."
"Well, then, I'll go to the cinema as well."
"Go on then!"
Twill!"
"You'll get tired of it. Just look at yourself in the mirror."
And indeed, a lively black-eyed countenance with a short, odd-looking beard and an absurdly long moustache peered out of the mirror at Father Theodore. They trimmed down the moustache to the right proportions.
What happened next amazed Mother still more. Father Theodore declared that he had to go off on a business trip that very evening, and asked his wife to go round to her brother, the baker, and borrow his fur-collared coat and duck-billed cap for a week.
"I won't go," said his wife and began weeping.
Father Theodore walked up and down the room for half an hour, frightening his wife by the change in his expression and telling her all sorts of rubbish. Mother could understand only one thing-for no apparent reason Father Theodore had cut his hair, intended to go off somewhere in a ridiculous cap, and was leaving her for good.
"I'm not leaving you," he kept saying. "I'm not. I'll be back in a week. A man can have a job to do, after all. Can he or can't he?"
"No, he can't," said his wife.
Father Theodore even had to strike the table with his fist, although he was normally a mild person in his treatment of his near ones. He did so cautiously, since he had never done it before, and, greatly alarmed, his wife threw a kerchief around her head and ran to fetch the civilian clothing from her brother.
Left alone, Father Theodore thought for a moment, muttered, "It's no joke for women, either," and pulled out a small tin trunk from under the bed. This type of trunk is mostly found among Red Army soldiers. It is usually lined with striped paper, on top of which is a picture of Budyonny, or the lid of a Bathing Beach cigarette box depicting three lovelies on the pebbly shore at Batumi. The Vostrikovs' trunk was also lined with photographs, but, to Father Theodore's annoyance, they were not of Budyonny or Batumi beauties. His wife had covered the inside of the trunk with photographs cut out of the magazine Chronicle of the 1914 War. They included "The Capture of Peremyshl", "The Distribution of Comforts to Other Ranks in the Trenches", and all sorts of other things.
Removing the books that were lying at the top (a set of the Russian Pilgrim for 1913; a fat tome, History of the Schism, and a brochure entitled A Russian in Italy, the cover of which showed a smoking Vesuvius), Father Theodore reached down into the very bottom of the trunk and drew out an old shabby hat belonging to his wife. Wincing at the smell of moth-balls which suddenly assailed him from the trunk, he tore apart the lace and trimmings and took from the hat a heavy sausage-shaped object wrapped in linen. The sausage-shaped object contained twenty ten-rouble gold coins, all that was left of Father Theodore's business ventures.
With a habitual movement of the hand, he lifted his cassock and stuffed the sausage into the pocket of his striped trousers. He then went over to the chest of drawers and took twenty roubles in three- and five-rouble notes from a sweet-box. There were twenty roubles left in the box. "That will do for the housekeeping," he decided.

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