Chapter XXVI.
 

Soloveitchik stood at the door for some time, looking up to the starless sky and rubbing his thin fingers.

The wind whistled round the gloomy tin-roofed sheds, bending the tree- tops that were huddled together like a troop of ghosts. Overhead, as if driven by some resistless force, the clouds raced onward, ever onward. They formed black masses against the horizon, some being piled up to insuperable heights. It was as though, far away in the distance, they were awaited by countless armies that, with sable banners all unfurled, had gone forth in their dreadful might to some wild conflict of the elements. From time to time the restless wind seemed to bring with it the clamour of the distant fray.

With childish awe Soloveitchik gazed upwards. Never before had he felt how small he was, how puny, how almost infinitesimal when confronted with this tremendous chaos.

"My God! My God!" he sighed.

In the presence of the sky and the night he was not the same man as when among his fellows. There was not a trace of that restless, awkward manner, now; the unsightly teeth were concealed by the sensitive lips of a youthful Jew in whose dark eyes the expression was grave and sad.

He went slowly indoors, extinguished an unnecessary lamp, and clumsily set the table and the chairs in their places again. The room was still full of tobacco-smoke, and the floor was covered with cigarette ends and matches.

Soloveitchik at once fetched a broom and began to sweep out the rooms, for he took a pride in keeping his little home clean and neat. Then he got a bucket of water from a cupboard, and broke bread into it. Carrying this in one hand, the other being outstretched to maintain his balance, he walked across the yard, taking short steps. In order to see better, he had placed a lamp close to the window, yet it was so dark in the yard that Soloveitchik felt relieved when he reached the dog's kennel. Sultan's shaggy form, invisible in the gloom, advanced to meet him, and a chain rattled ominously.

"Ah! Sultan! Kusch! Kusch!" exclaimed Soloveitchik, in order to give himself courage. In the darkness, Sultan thrust his cold, moist nose into his master's hand.

"There you are!" said Soloveitchik, as he set down the bucket.

Sultan sniffed, and began to eat voraciously, while his master stood beside him and gazed mournfully at the surrounding gloom.

"Ah! what can I do?" he thought. "How can I force people to alter their opinions? I myself expected to be told how to live, and how to think. God has not given me the voice of a prophet, so, in what way can I help?"

Sultan gave a grunt of satisfaction.

"Eat away, old boy, eat away!" said Soloveitchik. "I would let you loose for a little run, but I haven't got the key, and I'm so tired." Then to himself, "What clever, well-informed people those are! They know such a lot; good Christians, very likely; and here am I.... Ah! well, perhaps it's my own fault. I should have liked to say a word to them, but I didn't know how to do it."

From the distance, beyond the town, there came the sound of a long, plaintive whistle. Sultan raised his head, and listened. Large drops fell from his muzzle into the pail.

"Eat away," said Soloveitchik, "That's the train!"

Sultan heaved a sigh.

"I wonder if men will ever live like that! Perhaps they can't," said Soloveitchik aloud, as he shrugged his shoulders, despairingly. There, in the darkness he imagined that he could see a multitude of men, vast, unending as eternity, sinking ever deeper in the gloom; a succession of centuries without beginning and without end; an unbroken chain of wanton suffering for which remedy there was none; and, on high, where God dwelt, silence, eternal silence.

Sultan knocked against the pail, and upset it. Then, as he wagged his tail, the chain rattled slightly.

"Gobbled it all up, eh?"

Soloveitchik patted the dog's shaggy coat and felt its warm body writhe in joyous response to his touch. Then he went back to the house.

He could hear Sultan's chain rattle, and the yard seemed less gloomy than before, while blacker and more sinister was the mill with its tall chimney and narrow sheds that looked like coffins. From the window a broad ray of light fell across the garden, illuminating in mystic fashion the frail little flowers that shrank beneath the turbulent heaven with its countless banners, black and ominous, unfolded to the night.

Overcome by grief, unnerved by a sense of solitude and of some irreparable loss, Soloveitchik went back into his room, sat down at the table, and wept.