ON THE THRESHOLD
OSOKIN IS AT THE MAGICIAN’S HOUSE.
The magician, the same bent old man with a penetrating glance, dressed all in black, with a thin Persian stick inlaid with turquoise in his hand, sits with Osokin near the fire.
The same large, strangely furnished room, with its carpets, brocades, bookcases and bronze figures of Indian gods. The statue of Kwan-Yin in a recess, the big celestial globe on a red lacquered stand, the hourglass on the small ivory table near the magician’s chair, and the big black Siberian cat sleeping on the back of the chair.
Osokin is gloomy. He smokes a cigar and says nothing. At a moment when he is particularly deep in thought the magician speaks.
“My dear friend, you knew it before.”
Osokin starts and looks at him.
“How do you know what I am thinking?”
“I always know what you are thinking?”
Osokin bows his head and stares at the carpet.
“Yes, I know it cannot be helped now,” he says. “But if only I could bring back a few years of this miserable time which does not even exist, as you yourself always say. If only I could get back all the chances which life offered me and which I threw away. If only I could do things differently …” But as he says the words, he suddenly feels afraid, he does not know why.
He stops and looks in perplexity at the magician. Then he glances round him.
“What a strange sensation,” he says to himself. “Has all this happened before? It seemed to me just now that at some other time I have sat here. Everything was exactly the same, and I was saying the same words.
” He looks inquiringly at the magician.
The magician returns his look, laughs quietly and nods.
“Everything has been before,” he says, “and everything can be brought back, everything. But even that will not help.”
Osokin finds himself shivering. What does it all mean? He came to the magician with a definite idea in his mind but now it eludes him, and he cannot put it in words. He must remember what it was, he must explain it to the magician. Why does this stupid fear paralyze him?
He throws his cigar into the fire, rises from his chair and paces up and down the room.
The old man sits watching him, nodding his head and smiling. There is amusement and irony in his look—not an unsympathetic irony, but one full of understanding, of compassion and pity, as though he would like to help but cannot.
Osokin stops in front of him and says like a man in a trance:
“I must go back. Then I shall change everything. I cannot go on living like this. We do absurd things because we do not know what lies ahead of us. If only we could know! If only we could see a little way ahead.
He walks up and down the room, then again stops in front of the magician.
“Listen,” he says, “can’t your magic do this for me? Can’t you send me back? I have been thinking about it for a long time, and to-day, when I heard about Zinaida, I felt that this was the only thing left for me. Send me back, I shall do everything differently. I shall live in a new way and I shall be prepared for meeting Zinaida when the time comes. But I must remember everything, you understand, I must preserve all my experience and knowledge of life. I must remember that I have come back and not forget what I have come back for ….”
He stops. “God, what am I saying? I said the very same thing then.”
He looks at the magician.
The old man smiles and nods.
“I can carry out your wish,” he says, “but it will not be of any use; it will not make things any better for you.”
Osokin throws himself into an armchair and holds his head in his hands.
“Tell me,” he says, “is it true that I have already been here with you before?”
“It is true,” says the magician.
“And I asked you the same thing?”
“And shall I come again?”
“That is not so certain. You may want to come, but you may not be able to. There are many sides to these problems which you do not know yet. You may meet quite unexpected difficulties. One thing only I can say for certain. Circumstances may change, but there is not the slightest possibility of doubt that you yourself will arrive at the same decision. In that there can be no difference and no change.”
“But this is simply turning round on a wheel 1” says Osokin. “It is a trap I” The old man smiles.
“My dear friend,” he says, “this trap is called life. If you want to repeat the experiment once more, I am at your service. But I warn you, you will change nothing; you can only make things worse.”
“Even if I remember everything?”
“Even if you remember everything. First, because you will not retain this memory for long. It will be too painful, and you yourself will want to get rid of it and forget. And then you will forget. Second, even if you remember, it will not help you. You will remember and still continue to do the same things.”
“But this is horrible,” says Osokin. “Is there no way out?”
A nervous trembling takes hold of him so that again he cannot speak. There is the cold of the grave in this thought. He feels that this is the fear of the inevitable, fear of himself, of that self from which there is no escape … He will be the same and everything will be the same.
At this moment, Osokin understands that if he goes back as he is everything will indeed go in the same way as before. He clearly remembers all those chains of events at school and afterwards, when everything happened as if by clockwork, as in a machine the movement of one wheel makes another wheel move. But at the same time, he feels that he cannot accept things as they are now, cannot resign himself to the loss of Zinaida and to the thought that everything is his own fault.
Osokin and the magician are both silent.
“What am I to do then?” says Osokin at last almost in a whisper. There is a long pause.
“My dear friend,” says the magician, breaking the silence, “those are the first sensible words I have heard from you since the beginning of our acquaintance.
“You ask what you are to do. Listen to me attentively. What I am going to say to you is said to a man only once in his life, and even so only to very few men. If a man fails to understand, that is his own fault; it is not repeated. You come here, you complain, and you ask for a miracle. And, when I can, I do what you ask, because I sincerely wish to help you. But nothing comes of it. Try now to understand why nothing comes of it and why I am powerless to help you. Understand that I can carry out only your wishes, only what you ask for. I cannot give you anything on my own initiative. This is the law. Even what I am saying now I am able to say only because you have asked me what you are to do. If you had not asked, I could not have spoken.
“I can add something more to that. If you go back now, everything will be the same as before or worse. For instance, you may not meet me. You must understand that chances are limited; no one has unlimited chances. And you never know when you have used your last chance. On the other hand, if you go on living perhaps something can be changed sufficiently to enable you to start differently the next time.”
“Is it worth while living for this?”
“That is your affair. You have to decide for yourself. But remember one thing, if you go back as blind as you are now, you will do the same things again and a repetition of all that happened before is inevitable. You will not escape from the wheel; everything will go on as before. You ask me what you are to do. I answer: live. It is your only chance.
“If you think carefully, you will find in my words all that you need. But if you still want to go back and begin again, I will send you back even to the day of your birth, if you like. But I warn you that you will come here again—if you can. Now decide.”
Osokin sits motionless in the armchair. There is another long silence.
Scenes and pictures of his life again pass before him: school —Mother—Paris—Zinaida. God, how many possibilities he has had and lost one after another! And life kept closing in on him until finally he found himself in a narrow tunnel with no way out. But suppose a way out really exists? Why does the magician insist that he should live? And what is the sense in going back if he is bound to come to the same point again, or perhaps to something even worse? What does the magician mean by this? What could be worse?
“When I first began to understand that everything repeats and returns,” says Osokin to himself “it seemed to me an interesting adventure. But now it frightens me, and I feel I must do everything possible to postpone this experience. The adventure which attracted me lies in quite a different direction. Which direction I don’t know yet. But I must find it, before I can risk returning.”
At last, Osokin looks up.
“I will live,” he says. “You are right. I still cannot understand anything, but I do see that to start all this again is not a way out.”
The magician looks at Osokin for a long time as though trying to penetrate into his mind.
“Now that you have said that you are going to live,” he says at last, “I can tell you more. But first I want to ask you, do you think you know your Zinaida well?”
Osokin looks up in astonishment.
“I think I do,” he says, “but what do you mean?”
The old man smiles again.
“If you know her well, how you could believe that she would marry Minsky?”
“How could I believe…? She said that she would not wait any longer for me. And I could not go. Then I met Krutitsky, and he told me …”
Osokin stops and is suddenly seized by a strange and wonderful feeling of hope, of more than hope—the expectation of a miracle.
Why does the magician speak about it?
“I could not tell you this before,” continues the magician, “because I may not say anything that can influence your decisions. But now I can tell you that to-day Colonel Minsky passed through Moscow on his way to Petersburg. Zinaida broke off the engagement three days before the wedding. Besides, she never intended to marry him. Only you could fail to understand that.”
Osokin sits with a bewildered expression on his face.
“Then she is not going to be married,” he says as though he does not understand what he is saying. “But then why…?”
He looks at the magician as though he were seeing him for the first time.
“But why did you not tell me before?”
“Because you never asked. You accepted it as a fact and came to me with a ready-made decision. I cannot argue against ready-made decisions.”
Osokin scarcely hears what the magician is saying.
“God, what an idiot I have been,” he says to himself. “How could I have believed it? Of course, all this is nothing but her usual acting. She needed Minsky just for amusement, up to a certain point but not further. Of course, it is clear to me that she would never have married him. How could I misunderstand her so much?”
Pictures of the last few months pass before him. He sees clearly how he has shut himself up in his pride and obstinacy. Of course, he should have gone with Zinaida at all costs. Now, naturally, everything will be different.
Dozens of plans begin to form in his head. He sees himself in the train. Wheels are rattling. He is on his way to the Crimea. He will see Zinaida. After all, things can be arranged somehow.
The magician is speaking.
At first Osokin does not hear.
“Nothing will change,” says the magician.
“What do you mean by saying that nothing will change?” says Osokin. “Everything has changed already.”
The magician shakes his head and smiles.
“My dear friend, once more you deceive yourself. Nothing has changed. Everything is exactly the same as it has been up to now, and everything will remain the same. Nothing could change and nothing will change.
“The wind returneth again according to his circuits … The thing that has been, it is that which shall be and that which is done is that which shall be done.”
“And nothing can be changed?” says Osokin.
“I never said that nothing can be changed. I said that you cannot change anything, and that nothing will change by itself. I have already told you that in order to change anything you must first change yourself. And this is much more difficult than you think. It requires constant effort for a long time and much knowledge. You are incapable of such effort and you do not even know how to start. No one is capable of it by himself. People always repeat the same mistakes. At first, they simply do not know that they move in a circle; and if they hear about this idea, they refuse to believe it. Later, if they begin to see the truth of it and accept it, they think that this is all that is necessary; they become fully convinced that now they know all they need to know and that they can change everything. And immediately they find charlatans who assure them that everything is very easy and simple. This is the greatest illusion of all. In this way men lose the chances which they have acquired through much suffering and sometimes even through great effort.
“You must remember that one may know many things and be unable to change anything, because changing requires different knowledge and also something which you do not possess.”
“What is the thing we do not possess?”
“This question is very characteristic of you. Like everyone else, you think that you can know everything, when in fact you cannot know anything and cannot understand anything. How can I tell you what it is if it does not exist for you?”
Osokin is silent.
Yes, he feels that the magician is right. He cannot change anything. After his moment of exhilaration, he is seized by fear and anguish. He will again do the same absurd things; he will again lose Zinaida.
“Then, what is required to make things begin to change?” he asks. And he expects the magician to answer with one of those probably very clever but, for him, almost meaningless phrases, such as: when you are different, everything else will be different.
But the magician says something that Osokin has not anticipated.
“You must realize,” says the magician, “that you yourself can change nothing and that you must seek help. And it must be a very deep realization, because to realize to-day and forget to-morrow is not sufficient. One must live with this realization.”
“But what does it mean to ‘live with this realization’?” asks Osokin. “And who can help me?”
“I can help you,” says the magician, “and to live with this realization means to sacrifice something big for it, not only once, but to go on making sacrifices until you get what you want.”
“You speak in riddles,” says Osokin. “What can I sacrifice? I have nothing.”
“Everyone has something to sacrifice,” says the magician, “except those who cannot be helped. But of course, it is impossible to say beforehand what one may get for one’s sacrifice. Do you remember the man who had to work seven years to win a wife, and in the end, they gave him the wrong sister? He had to work another seven years. This often happens.”
Osokin is silent. Something unpleasant stirs in him. What does the old man want from him?
“What I am saying seems strange to you,” says the magician, “because you have never thought about these things in the right way. Besides, thinking by itself will not help. Here again, one must know. And in order to know, one must learn; and in order to learn, one must make sacrifices. Nothing can be acquired without sacrifice. This is the thing you do not understand, and until you understand it, nothing can be done. Had I wanted to give you, without any sacrifice on your part, everything you might wish, I could not have done it.
“A man can be given only what he can use; and he can use only that for which he has sacrificed something. This is the law of human nature. So, if a man wants to get help to acquire important knowledge or new powers, he must sacrifice other things important to him at the moment.
Moreover, he can only get as much as he has given up for it. There are additional difficulties due to his state. He cannot know exactly what he may get, but if he realizes the hopelessness of his position, he will agree to make sacrifices, even without knowing. And he will be glad to do so, because only in this way can he acquire the possibility of gaining something new or of changing himself; for if he does not sacrifice anything, then everything will remain the same for him or even become worse.”
“Are there no other ways?” asks Osokin.
“You mean ways in which no sacrifices are necessary? No, there are no such ways, and you do not understand what you are asking. You cannot have results without causes. By your sacrifice you create causes. There are different ways, but they differ only in the form, magnitude and finality of the sacrifice. In most cases, one has to give up everything at once and expect nothing.
“There is a dervish song which goes like this:
Through four renunciations Ascend to perfection. Leave life without regret. Expect no reward in heaven.
“Do you understand what that means? Most people can go only by this way or by one of the similar ways. But here, now, you are in a different position. You can talk with me. You can know what you have to give up and what you may get for it.”
“How can I know what I can get? And how shall I know what I have to give up?”
“You can know what you may get through the realization of what it is you want. For some very complicated reasons which are all in yourself, you happen to have guessed a very great secret which people generally do not know. By itself your guess is useless because you cannot apply it to anything. But the fact that you know this secret opens certain doors for you. You know that everything repeats again and again. There have been other people who made the same discovery, but they could make nothing more of it. If you could change something in yourself, you would be able to use this knowledge for your own advantage. So, you see, you do know what you want and what you may get.
“Now the question of what to sacrifice and how to sacrifice. You say you have nothing. Not quite. You have your life. So, you can sacrifice your life. It is a very small price to pay since you meant to throw it away in any case. Instead of that, give me your life and I will see what can be made of you. I will even make it easier for you. I shall not require the whole of your life. Twenty, even fifteen years will be sufficient. But during these years you must belong to me—I mean, you must do everything I tell you without evasions and excuses. If you keep your side of the bargain, I shall keep mine. When this time is over you will be able to use your knowledge for yourself. It is your good luck that you can be useful to me just now—not at once, certainly, but I can wait if there is anything to wait for. So now you know what you have to sacrifice.
“There is something else which may be said. People who make the same guess that you have made have certain advantages and certain disadvantages in comparison with other people who guess nothing. Their advantage is that they can be taught what other people cannot be taught, and their disadvantage is that, for them, time becomes very limited. An ordinary man can turn round and round on the wheel and nothing happens to him until he finally disappears.
“Again, there are many things you do not know about this; but you must understand that in the course of time even the position of the stars in relation to one another changes—and men depend on the stars much more than they realize though not in the same way as they think, if they think about it at all. Nothing remains the same in time. But a man who has begun to guess the great secret must make use of it, otherwise it turns against him. It is not a safe secret. When one has become aware of it, one must go on or one will go down. When one finds the secret or hears about it, one has only two or three, or in any case only a few more lives.
“You must understand that, for reasons of my own, I am interested in such people in the same way as I am interested in you. But I can offer my help only at one particular moment and only once. If my help is not accepted, a man may not find me next time. It may sound strange to you, but the fact is that sometimes I see people who would like to come to me, walking along this street, but they cannot find my house. That is why I told you before that you may want to come to me again but not be able to.”
“What happens to those people who cannot find your house?”
“Oh, they have other possibilities, but you must understand that every possibility is always more difficult than the preceding one; there is less and less time. If those people do not find new guidance and new help very soon, their lives begin to go down, and after some time they cease to be born and are replaced by other people. You must understand that they become useless, sometimes dangerous, because they know the great secret and remember many things; but all that they know, they understand in the wrong way. And in any case, if they have not used their chances before, then each time their possibilities become fewer.
“Now you must think about yourself. Fifteen years seem a long time to you because you are still very young. Later you will see that it is a very short time, especially when you realize what you can get for it. So go home and think. When you have understood and put in the right order everything I have said, you may come here and tell me what you have decided.
“I can only add one thing more. Like everyone else, you think that there are different ways of doing the same thing. You have to learn to understand that there is always only one way of doing a thing; there can never be two ways. But you will not come to this easily. For a long time, you will have a great deal of inner argument. All this has to be destroyed. Only then will you be ready for real work. And understand another thing: only when you are useful to me will you be useful to yourself.
“I must also warn you that there are many dangers on the way, dangers about which you have never heard—or heard quite wrongly. A long time ago I met a very disagreeable gentleman who is sometimes pictured with horns and hoofs. He is not so big as some people make him out to be, but his chief occupation in life is to hinder the development of people who have guessed the great secret. And my occupation is to hinder him. So, you must understand that very powerful forces will be opposed to you and you will be alone, always alone. Remember this.
“Now go and come back when you have decided. Take as much time as you like, but I advise you not to delay too long.”
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