THE THREE HERMITS (1886)
AN OLD LEGEND CURRENT IN THE VOLGA DISTRICT
‘And in praying use not vain repetitions, as the Gentiles do: for they think that they shall be heard for their much speaking. Be not therefore like unto them: for your Father knoweth what things ye have need of, before ye ask Him.’ – Matt. vi. 7, 8.
A Bishop was sailing from Archangel to the Solovétsk Monastery; and on the same vessel were a number of pilgrims on their way to visit the shrines at that place. The voyage was a smooth one. The wind favourable, and the weather fair. The pilgrims lay on deck, eating, or sat in groups talking to one another. The Bishop, too, came on deck, and as he was pacing up and down, he noticed a group of men standing near the prow and listening to a fisherman who was pointing to the sea and telling them something. The Bishop stopped, and looked in the direction in which the man was pointing. He could see nothing however, but the sea glistening in the sunshine. He drew nearer to listen, but when the man saw him, he took off his cap and was silent. The rest of the people also took off their caps, and bowed.
‘Do not let me disturb you, friends,’ said the Bishop. ‘I came to hear what this good man was saying.’
‘The fisherman was telling us about the hermits,’ replied one, a tradesman, rather bolder than the rest.
‘What hermits?’ asked the Bishop, going to the side of the vessel and seating himself on a box. ‘Tell me about them. I should like to hear. What were you pointing at?’
‘Why, that little island you can just see over there,’ answered the man, pointing to a spot ahead and a little to the right. ‘That is the island where the hermits live for the salvation of their souls.’
‘Where is the island?’ asked the Bishop. ‘I see nothing.’
‘There, in the distance, if you will please look along my hand. Do you see that little cloud? Below it and a bit to the left, there is just a faint streak. That is the island.’
The Bishop looked carefully, but his unaccustomed eyes could make out nothing but the water shimmering in the sun.
‘I cannot see it,’ he said. ‘But who are the hermits that live there?’
‘They are holy men,’ answered the fisherman. ‘I had long heard tell of them, but never chanced to see them myself till the year before last.’
And the fisherman related how once, when he was out fishing, he had been stranded at night upon that island, not knowing where he was. In the morning, as he wandered about the island, he came across an earth hut, and met an old man standing near it. Presently two others came out, and after having fed him, and dried his things, they helped him mend his boat.
‘And what are they like?’ asked the Bishop.
‘One is a small man and his back is bent. He wears a priest’s cassock and is very old; he must be more than a hundred, I should say. He is so old that the white of his beard is taking a greenish tinge, but he is always smiling, and his face is as bright as an angel’s from heaven. The second is taller, but he also is very old. He wears tattered, peasant coat. His beard is broad, and of a yellowish grey colour. He is a strong man. Before I had time to help him, he turned my boat over as if it were only a pail. He too, is kindly and cheerful. The third is tall, and has a beard as white as snow and reaching to his knees. He is stern, with over-hanging eyebrows; and he wears nothing but a mat tied round his waist.’
‘And did they speak to you?’ asked the Bishop.
‘For the most part they did everything in silence and spoke but little even to one another. One of them would just give a glance, and the others would understand him. I asked the tallest whether they had lived there long. He frowned, and muttered something as if he were angry; but the oldest one took his hand and smiled, and then the tall one was quiet. The oldest one only said: “Have mercy upon us,” and smiled.’
While the fisherman was talking, the ship had drawn nearer to the island.
‘There, now you can see it plainly, if your Grace will please to look,’ said the tradesman, pointing with his hand.
The Bishop looked, and now he really saw a dark streak — which was the island. Having looked at it a while, he left the prow of the vessel, and going to the stern, asked the helmsman:
‘What island is that?’
‘That one,’ replied the man, ‘has no name. There are many such in this sea.’
‘Is it true that there are hermits who live there for the salvation of their souls?’
‘So it is said, your Grace, but I don’t know if it’s true. Fishermen say they have seen them; but of course they may only be spinning yarns.’
‘I should like to land on the island and see these men,’ said the Bishop. ‘How could I manage it?’
‘The ship cannot get close to the island,’ replied the helmsman, ‘but you might be rowed there in a boat. You had better speak to the captain.’
The captain was sent for and came.
‘I should like to see these hermits,’ said the Bishop. ‘Could I not be rowed ashore?’
The captain tried to dissuade him.
‘Of course it could be done,’ said he, ‘but we should lose much time. And if I might venture to say so to your Grace, the old men are not worth your pains. I have heard say that they are foolish old fellows,