Her reputation had spread across Russia, as a young and unmarried aristocrat but holy woman of unusual devotion and piety, and no holy man, however much an anchorite or secluded in his tastes, would refuse her an interview.
Nor did she decline to help others in an honest quest for spiritual guidance or counsel--which she took was the nature of her young charge Sofya's request to see the Kremlin staretz, Bishop Aristocoli.
“The holy Bishop said to show you right in. Please follow me, but do not stray off on your own, my children, or you may be sent away by those who keep charge of this place.”
Surprised, since they had not sent a servant to announce their coming, Lev and Sofya alone--no maid and a man-servant from the Bers household had accompanied them on this venture-—were led by the countess through several high walled, gated and extravagantly but datedly decorated courts, which had figured in various former reigns as far back as the infamous, German-born Catherine the Great.
The shadowy form of the countess, on which a single strand of pearls shone on her neck as her only worldly adornment, nearly disappeared from view between the pillars, which grew in size as they approached the inner chamber of the staretz.
It seemed interminable, the rows of pillars and halls and chapels and choirs and other such recesses of the cathedrals and monasteries that led off in an endless maze or labyrinth from the main entrance and great hall they had first entered.
Since his was an adjunct to the royal court, the precincts of the staretz were held public or "profane" in access-—and so the countess and her non-clerical guests were allowed in without challenge by the many groups of holy men and disciples they passed.
It was a strange experience, even for Lev and Sofya, both of whom had known the Kremlin for a long time.
At one point, a tall, gaunt-eyed man in a dark robe with a high, oriental-style headdress came up, passed his hand over them in a sort of benediction, then muttered “Vanity! Saith the Preacher, vanity!” before he turned away and melted back into the darkness of the shadows.
Sofya shuddered, and the countess shook her head.
“That poor fellow, a grand duke, is a mad one,” she commented, then continued their walk. "He ruined himself with drink and women in his youth, but they suffer him to pass his remaining years here since he harms no one impersonating King Solomon."
Then abruptly the countess paused. “Wait for me here,” she said. She vanished ahead of them between a pair of giant pillars and a low curtain that acted as sort of gate and also a barrier.
After a few minutes, Lev and Sofya saw a pale hand beckoning them, and they went forward, stepped beneath the curtain and found themselves in a sort of curtained antechamber dimly lit by two tall tapers in massive gold holders, affording only enough light to show the outlines of holy men and their disciples.
Sofya turned an anxious face toward Lev, tugging his hand. “No, I cannot go in. I feel faint.”
The countess, turning to her, took her hand. “Are you sure, child?”
Sofya nodded, and a chair was brought to her where she stood, and she sank into it.
“Well,” said Lev, “we’ve come all this way and made a nuisance of ourselves, so I for one am going in.”
The countess nodded approval, and Lev took that as a signal to make his approach to what he perceived was the door of the staretz’s chamber.
He came up to it and was surprised to find a small, prison-like iron door, which a monk opened for him so that he could step into the chamber. The door clanged shut behind him, and the impression of a prison was so strong it jolted Lev’s already strung nerves badly.
The eyes were Lev's first impression-—staring at him, kindly, wonderingly, almost like a child’s would stare at a stranger, when visitors were very few to that child’s experience. How could so brutal and rough-cut a face, with such hard and granite-like features, give off so soft a look as a child's, yet it did.
“I am seeking an audience with the Most Reverend Bishop Aristocoli,” he blurted out, without any of the usual courtesies and ceremony. "If you know where he is, please inform him that Count Lev--"
The old man seated on a bare cot in the corner of the room stirred, his hands raised. Immediately, that simple gesture told Lev everything. He was so taken aback, he rushed and threw himself down on his knees with no further self-introduction.
“Holy father,” the youthful rake cried, his heart bursting with guilt over a thousand excesses at gambling and innumerable, drunken debaucheries with gypsy harlots that were the talk of Moscow, “bless me on the eve of my marriage!”
What? Even though he had doctors treat him a number of times for venereal disease, had he said such a foolish thing? Lev wondered, as the words tumbled out. He wasn’t a religious person, to his mind—-or what the commonly-thought religious person was presumed to be, at any rate! He took issue with many points of orthodox theology, and was in support of major reforms before he could ever-—
The staretz smiled, passing his hand lightly over Lev’s hot, trembling brow. “You have many, many issues, but they are not in your heart. They are here.”
Lev looked up surprised. The bishop tapped Lev’s head, smiling more broadly.
“Once they reach the heart,” the bishop continued, “you will find your answers have been waiting there all along.”
Stunned, struck by the holy man’s simplicity and profundity all mixed together, Lev was speechless. His tongue caught in his mouth, but the staretz did not wait for a reply.
He turned away, picked up the candle, then held it, staring into its light.
Lev heard the staretz chanting something, as if he were reciting an old litany of the Holy Church.
Abruptly, the staretz seemed to recall he had a visitor, then set the candle back. He sat down, and gestured, inviting Lev to come close.
Lev found no chair, so he knelt on the cold marble floor before the staretz.
“You will write many things for the world and its society, some of them containing wise things. But you will not speak or write of the things I will tell you now, since they will have to move from your head to your heart first, and that will take a lifetime for you to be ready. Only at the utter end of your days will they take meaning."
Lev had no idea what to make of this. He knew that the staretz, by reputation, could foretell things. Was this the opening to glorious worlds only a holy staretz Was privileged to see? Would Lev be treated to a tour of celestial pavilions, perhaps? What would the staretz reveal to him?
Excited, Lev waited, his eyes fixed on the staretz’s face, which shone in the dim light of the candle, but whose eyes were turned away, as if on a distant view only he could see.
“Great troubles are coming for the world, and for our holy Motherland. There will be a very great war, and the nations will cease in exhaustion, then go to war again, for it is the same war but fought at different times. Oppression and a red star will come. It will seize Holy Russia's throne and empire and people and grind us nearly to dust. Much blood will flow. Much suffering will be endured. But the Motherland will be freed after threescore and ten years. We will not be ruled as before the reign of the red star by the dynasty of the czar, but there will arise various strong men in his place before the world grows much colder and a Man of Sin arises to save it--but He will only help the evil star bring its destruction." The oracle ceased, as the staretz paused.
"Is this all we get from the trouble we took to call on him?" he wondered. That was the whole of it, he decided, and he was thinking of the proper way to take his departure when the staretz fastened his eyes on him. Lev decided he had better give the staretz another chance. Again, the wise man began speaking, with a change in his voice, with less horror and actually a kind of cheerfulness.
"Now I speak of the second Holy Russia, which is the same as us here, only separated by gulfs of space for a time. In that sister nation they will not be able to stop the people of Russia in their faith after the yoke of the Dragon is thrown off for a time. St. George will ride forth victorious from that land and trample the Dragon from there to the islands of the British queen, the one who will suffer and grieve much because of her children--but who will remain true to God. Yes, the faith of the holy land of Russia will flood forth from blood-soaked soil to the West, blessing all the Western Nations, so that the two worlds of the earth may again be united.
This great reunion will take place and then the Holy One of God, Christ the Victor, will come. You will not live to see the reunion, and this base worm you see before you will be long gone before the evil red star comes and rules over us, with terror and violence in its teeth.”
The staretz fell silent.
Lev waited--in vain. “Is that all? What about our world?—“
A hundred questions whirled in his brain. He rose up on his aching feet, for the chill of the marble, never heated in even the coldest winter, had numbed them to the bone. He couldn’t just leave it at that, he knew. Sofya was waiting for some word of blessing on their nuptials-—the reason for their calling on the staretz in the first place. Other young couples went to soothsayers and gypsy fortunetellers, but a young woman of her breeding couldn’t possibly do that-—so the countess’s connection with the staretz seemed ideal as an alternative.
The next moment was confused. Lev could not recall what he had done to get something more from the staretz in the way of a blessing. Had he implored him for greater enlightenment, clarification, or had he merely, stupidly accepted the silence of the staretz?
He stumbled out of the chamber—-or was he led by a monk tugging at his sleeve?
He found himself looking into his fiance’s startled face.
“Lev, you are so pale! What happened! What did he say about us! Was it bad?”
Lev put on his brave smile reserved for tight situations. “Not at all! It was most favorable, dear Sofya!”
“Oh? What did he say?”
But before he could think what to say, there was a commotion at the little door, and the staretz himself appeared. He had not appeared, apparently, for a long time, and the whole congregation of disciples was visibly moved.
Yet the staretz took no notice of the others and went directly to Lev and Sofya.
Later, at the Bers house, Lev divulged some details of the staretz’s prophesies.
Sofya’s eyes showed him she hadn’t the slightest patience with such ideas.
She had no trouble telling him so too. “It was a waste of our time to go there then! I wanted him to say something about us! Us! Those things don’t concern us in the least! Now as to the parties, Lev-—we have much to discuss-—“
“But—“ he began lamely, then bit off his words. “What use,” he wondered, was there trying to explain world events to a woman’s frivolous mind? Society is the only thing that matters to her." Besides, he had no real understanding of the staretz’s words yet. It would take some time for to think the whole thing through, he knew. A war of the world’s nations, divided by a space of time? Two worlds of earth, separated but to be united in a future time? A red star of great wickedness? No czar? An “awakening” of the holy faith on the "second" Russia, spreading from a "second" Russia to the West? Then another, even greater Awakening, followed by the Coming of Christ to the united Worlds of Earth?
Indeed, it was heady stuff for a young man like himself, who wasn't normally religiously inclined. No wonder the countess did not want it discussed openly, even in the hearing of the monks and hangers-on outside the staretz’s chamber!
Lev promptly forgot it all-—for it was not the sort of thing, like philosophy, he could entertain on a daily basis. Besides he was busy writing one book after another, establishing his life and reputation as a writer. Logically, he worked through one idea and then another, following them as if exploring a sort of labyrinth. Finally, grown to be an aged man, he could take no more of the poison of suspicion and nagging and deserted his wife, Sofya, who had grown to be an intolerable nuisance to his nerves. Never would she forgive his youthful indiscretions! She didn't forgive any of the women, too, on the estate that she suspected had shared his love from time to time!
Fleeing down the railway that led away from his estate, with no destination in mind, he soon felt terribly ill. He lost his consciousness, then awakened in a railway depot manager’s humble cottage, lying on the man’s bed. He knew he was dying. But somehow, he knew that though all his philosophical speculations had flown away from his fevered brain, like meaningless froth on wind-swept waves, something had sunk into his heart at last.
“Christ is coming!” was the thing in his heart. “The Lamb of God that taketh away the sin of the world, He is coming! That much was sure! That much!"
“But where will you, the unrighteous, stand before the Holy Judge and Lord of All?” came the question like a lightning bolt into his fading mind. Worse, along with the question, flew the image of Baal dancers and priests.
Surely, was he not like one of them? He could not deny the riotous youth he had spent and even the numerous adulteries of his married years.
“But I don’t know, I don’t know how I will stand before Him!” he thought, despairing. “All I see is my own darkness. I have entertained false lights and lamps of shining delusion all my life, while consumed with lust for women and the vanities of worldly philosophies and speculations-—so nothing remains for me now but the darkness! Forgive me, holy father, forgive me!”
Then the old staretz, forgotten for many years, appeared to him.
Yet another image appeared, which was strange to Lev's eyes--a slender, woman-faced man in a cape at the top of a tall staircase, with oddly dressed soldiers standing at attention below.
Following the Beast, the Man of Sin, yet another image appeared, and it was so bright, the Lamb of God Himself, who shone before Lev. The vision was so blinding, everything else vanished before his gaze.
In that moment, the many years flew away on wings. He was again a young count, dissolute and full of himself. He and his fiance were touring the secret chambers known to the staretz. The scenes flitted through his brain, even as the brain died, leaving only the vibrant spirit.
Just as the staretz had said it would happen to him, he saw again, the great faith of Russia, riding forth to evangelize the West on the second, separated twin Earth!