Littell's Living Age/Volume 132/Issue 1701/How Russians Meet Death

From Temple Bar.




I have a neighbor, Ardalion, a young laird and a keen sportsman. One fine July morning I rode over to his place, to propose our going out grouse-shooting together.

"Yes," said he, "let's ride through my copses. I will look at Tchaplygino on the way; my oak-wood, you know. It's being thinned."

We set off. My neighbor took with him his bailiff, Archip, a strong under-sized peasant, with a square face and pre-historically developed cheekbones; and an overseer just come from the Baltic provinces, Herr Gottlieb von der Kolk, a thin, fair, short-sighted, nineteen-year-old youth, with sloping shoulders and a long neck. My neighbor had not long come into possession of his estate. He had inherited it from an aunt, an uncommonly fat woman, who even when lying in bed used to be always painfully panting.

"Wait for me in this glade," said my neighbor Ardalion to his companions, when we reached the copses.

I had known Ardalion's forest ever since my childhood. I often used to go to Tchaplygino with my French tutor, M. Desire Fleury, a most kindly man, who nearly ruined my health, however, by making me take physic every night. The forest consisted of some two or three hundred old oaks and ashes. Their strong and stately trunks stood proudly out in dark relief against the transparent gold-flaked green of the hazel-bushes and maples. Higher up they were sharply outlined against the clear azure of the sky, and there spread out like a tent their wide and knarled boughs. Above their motionless tops soared, with shrill cries, hawks, buzzards, and kites, while mottled woodpeckers tapped away loudly at their thick bark; the blackbird's clear notes suddenly resounded through the dense foliage, mingled with the ivolga's fluent song. Hedge-sparrows and siskins twittered in the underwood below, chaffinches fluttered across the path, and every now and then a hare stole along the edge of the thicket, or a ruddy squirrel boldly sprang from tree to tree, and suddenly sat still with his tail curled over his head. In the grass, close to some huge anthills, violets and lilies of the valley bloomed beneath the shade of delicate ferns; saxifrage, cotton-grass, and red agaric stood all around; and the tiny lawns amid the bushes were crimsoned by strawberries. And what shade there was in the wood! In the very noontide's heat it was actual night there — night with its stillness and fragrance and freshness.

I had formerly spent many a joyous hour in that wood, and it was not, I must admit, without a feeling of melancholy that I now rode under the too well-known trees. The destructive snowless winter of 1840 had not spared my old friends the oaks and ashes. Dry and bare, but colored here and there with a hectic green, they sadly reared themselves above the young undergrowth which crept around their feet. Some of them, still foliaged below, seemed to stretch out their stunted and lifeless arms with a gesture of reproach and despair, others waved aloft their dry, dead branches high above the already thickish though not luxuriant undergrowth; some had already lost their bark, others had at last fallen, and now, like corpses, lay rotting on the ground. Who could ever have believed it? Here in this very wood no shade was to be found. "You may well feel sad and ashamed," thought I, as I gazed at the dying trees. Involuntarily I thought of Koltsoff's lines: —

Ah, where are now
Thy lofty speech,
Thy proud strength,
Thy royal courage?
Ah, where is now
Thy leafy might?

"How comes this, Ardalion?" I began; "why weren't these trees felled the next year? You won't get a tenth part now of the price that they would have fetched then."

He shrugged his shoulders. "You should have asked my aunt that. There was no lack of bidders who offered a good price, and who were anxious to get wood."

"Good heavens!" cried Von der Kolk at every step; "what a shame! what a shame!"

What most of all excited his pity was the sight of the oaks which were lying on the ground; and, no doubt, any miller would have paid handsomely for them. Archip, the bailiff, preserved an impenetrable composure, and uttered no plaint; he even jumped across them with an air of satisfaction, and kept striking at them with his whip.

As we rode on to the place where the wood was being felled, suddenly we heard the crash of a falling tree, and immediately afterwards a confused sound of voices and cries. A few moments later a young peasant came tearing out of the thickets, with a pale face and streaming hair.

"What's the matter? where are you running?" asked Ardalion. He stopped short.

"Ah, little father! Ardalion Michaelovitch!" he cried; "such a misfortune!"

"What is it?"

"Maxim has been smashed by a tree, master!"

"What! Maxim the foreman?"

"Yes, master. We were felling an ash, and he stood looking on. — He stood there a little while, and then he went away to the well; he was thirsty, I suppose. All at once the ash trembled, and bent his way. We called to him: 'Run, run, run.' — He should have run aside, but he ran straight on; frightened, maybe. So he came just under the top branches of the ash. Heaven only knows why it fell so quickly. It must have been rotten at the core."

"Well, it struck him down?"

"Yes, master."

"Is he dead?"

"No, little father, he is still alive; but his arms and legs are smashed. I was just running for the surgeon."

Ardalion told the bailiff to gallop to the village for the surgeon, and he himself rode fast on to where the wood was being cut. I followed him. We found poor Maxim lying on the ground. Some ten peasants stood round him. We got off our horses. The wounded man scarcely uttered a single moan. Now and then he opened his eyes and looked round him, as if astonished, and occasionally he bit his livid lips. His chin twitched convulsively, his hair clung to his temples, his heart rose and fell in irregular gasps; he was already doing battle with death. The soft shadow of a young lime-tree fell gently on his face.

We bent over him, and he recognized Ardalion.

"Little father!" he began in a scarcely audible voice; "send — for the priest — God has stricken me — broken my arms and legs — to-day — Sunday — and I — I — did not let the lads knock off work."

He was silent for a while, struggling for breath.

"Give my money — to my wife — to pay off — Onesimus knows — to whom — how much there is owing."

"We have sent for the doctor, Maxim," said my neighbor; "perhaps you won't die after all."

He tried to open his eyes, and at last with difficulty managed to raise his eyelids.

"No, I shall die. There — there it comes — there it is — there — forgive me, lads, if I — if anything "

"God will forgive thee, Maxim Andrevitch," said the peasants all together, in a husky voice, as they bared their heads.

"Do thou forgive us."

Suddenly he shook his head with a despairing gesture, tried to sit up, but fell back again.

"We cannot let him die here," cried Ardalion; "fetch the mat out of the telega; we will carry him to the hospital."

Two woodcutters ran off to the telega.

"Yesterday — I bought a horse" — murmured the dying man, "from Geoffry — Sitchoffsky — hansel-money down — so it's mine — give it too to my wife."

They tried to lay him on the mat. He quivered all over just like a wounded bird, and then stiffened.

"He is dead," muttered the peasants. We mounted our horses in silence, and rode away.

The scene that I had just witnessed made me thoughtful. Remarkable, truly, is the way the Russian dies! His state before his latter end is neither indifference nor stolidity. He takes death as if it were some rite, and dies coolly, and with perfect simplicity.

Some years ago a peasant got burned in a kiln on my neighbor's estate. (He would have remained there had not a passer-by pulled him out half dead.)

I went to the peasant's hut to see him — a hut dark, smoky, stifling — and asked where the patient was.

"There he lies, sir, over the stove," answered, in a sort of sing-song, a woman who was sitting in a corner.

I drew near. There lay the man, covered with a sheepskin, and breathing heavily.

"Well, how do you feel?"

The sufferer turned round on the stove and tried to sit up. He was one mass of wounds, and near to death,

"Lie still, lie still — well, how goes it?"

"Badly, sure enough."

"Are you in pain?" He held his peace. "Do you want anything?" Still silence. "Shall I send you some tea or anything else?"

"There's no need."

I stepped aside, and sat down on a bench. A quarter of an hour passed, then half an hour, in the same deathlike stillness. In the corner, on the table underneath the holy picture, a little girl of five years old was munching a piece of bread. The mother shook her finger at her from time to time. In the passage people went up and down, talked, and made a noise. The brother's wife was chopping cabbage.

"Axinia," began at length the sick man.


"A drink of kvass."

Axinia gave him the kvass. Silence set in again.

I asked in a whisper if he had received the sacrament.

"Yes," was the reply.

All was set in order, it seemed. He had only to wait till death came. I could bear it no longer, and went away.

Another time, I remember, I went to the village hospital of Krasnogore, to see the surgeon there, an acquaintance of mine, and an enthusiastic sportsman. The hospital consisted of the wing of what had been a family residence. It was founded by the lady of the manor herself; that is to say, she set up over the door a blue board, on which was painted in white letters, "Krasnogore Hospital," and she gave the surgeon, with her own hand, a handsome album, to write the names of the patients in. On the first page of that album one of that benevolent lady's hangers-on had inscribed the following verses:

Dans ces beaux lieux, où règne l’allégresse,
Ce temple fut ouvert par la Beauté;
De vos seigneurs admirez la tendresse,
Bons habitants de Krasnogoriè!’

Some other gentleman had written lower down: —

Et moi aussi j’aime la nature!
Jean Kobyliatnikoff.

The village surgeon put up six beds at his own expense, and set to work to cure the sick folk as best he could. Besides him, there were two functionaries in the hozpital — a lunatic, named Paul; and Mellikitrissa, an old woman with a withered hand, who filled the office of cook. They both prepared the medicaments, and dried or pickled herbs. It was moreover their duty to control the patients when delirious. The lunatic was chary of his words, and gloomy in appearance. At night he used to sing songs about "Beautiful Venus," and he pleaded with every passer-by for permission to marry a certain girl called Malania, who had long been dead. The woman with the withered hand would then beat him, and send him to mind the turkeys.

Well, one day I was sitting with Kapiton, the village surgeon. We had just begun a discussion about our last sporting expedition, when suddenly there drove into the courtyard a telega, drawn by an unusually thick-set iron-grey horse, such as could only belong to a miller. In the telega sat a sturdy peasant in a new blouse, and with a mottled beard.

"Ah, Vassily Dimitritch!" called out Kapiton to him from the window. "Come in. It is the miller of Lyybovshin," he whispered.

The peasant alighted, groaning, from the telega, came into the surgeon's room, looked round for the holy picture, and made the sign of the cross.

"Well, Vassily, what news? — but you must be ill; you look all wrong."

"Indeed, Kapiton Timofeïtch, I am not well."

"What's the matter?"

"Well, you see, Kapiton Timofeïtch, I bought a millstone not long ago in the town. I took it home, and when I was getting it out of the cart I must have overstrained myself, for it was just as if something snapped in my inside, as if I had torn away something — and since then I have always been ailing. To-day, indeed, I am very bad."

"Hum," muttered Kapiton, taking a pinch of snuff; "probably a rupture. When did it happen?"

"Ten days ago."

"Ten?" said the surgeon, with a grave face, drawing his breath through his teeth, and shaking his head. "Let me examine you. Well, Vassily," he said at length, "I am very sorry for you, but your case is a bad one; you are seriously ill; stay here with me, and I will take the greatest pains, though I won't answer for the conquences."

"Is it really so had?" stammered the astonished miller.

"Yes. Vassily, it is bad. Had you come to me two days sooner I could have cured you in the twinkling of an eye; now, however, there is inflammation, which may easily turn to mortification."

"Impossible! Kapiton Timofeïtch!"

"But I tell you it is so!"

"How can it be?"

The surgeon merely shrugged his shoulders.

"And must I die for such a rubbishy thing?"

"I do not say that you must die — but you must stay here."

The peasant thought and thought, looked down on the ground, then upwards, scratched his head, and finally seized his cap.

"Where are you going, Vassily?"

"Where? why, home of course, if it is really so bad. If it be so, I must settle my affairs."

"But you will do yourself harm, Vassily; I wonder how you got here at all. Do stay here."

"No, friend Kapiton Timofeïtch; if I am to die so soon, I will die at home. Why should I die here? God only knows what might happen at home!"

"One cannot tell, Vassily, what turn your case may take: anyhow it is a dangerous one, very dangerous, no doubt of that — and for that very reason you must stay here."

The peasant shook his head.

"No, Kapiton Timofeïtch, I will not stay — but you might give me a prescription."

"Medicine alone will do no good."

"I tell you I cannot stay."

"Well, as you like. — But don't blame me afterwards."

The surgeon tore a leaf from the album, wrote a prescription, and explained to him the necessary treatment. The peasant took the paper, gave Kapiton a silver half-rouble, went out, and seated himself in his telega.

"Good-bye, then, Kapiton Timofeïtch; do not take it amiss, and think of the orphans if anything should" — he called back to him.

"Oh, Vassily, do stay here!"

The peasant only shook his head, hit his horse with the reins, and drove out of the yard. I went into the street and looked after him. The road was muddy and rough; the miller drove carefully and slowly, guided his horse with skill, and courteously greeted the passers-by. — Four days afterwards he was dead.

The Russian does indeed die in a remarkable way. How many instances I can call to mind! I remember you, my old friend, O unsuccessful student, Avenir Sorokoumoff, best and noblest of men! I see again your sallow consumptive face, your scanty fair hair, your gentle smile, your inspired gaze, your long limbs. I can hear your feeble friendly voice. You were living with a country gentleman in Great Russia, by name Gur Krupianikoff ; instructing his children Fofa and Sosa in Russian grammar, geography, and history; you bore with patience Gur's coarse jokes, the odious familiarity of the agent, and the naughtiness of the unruly boys; without a murmur, although smiling bitterly, you complied with the exacting caprices of their ennui listless mother.

How happy you were, however, in the evenings, when, after supper, you could at last rest and be free from all duties. Then you sat at the window, thoughtfully smoking your pipe, or eagerly skimming the dirty and torn newspaper which the land-surveyor, a homeless waif like yourself, had brought from the town. How pleased you were with the poetry and tales; tears glistened in your eyes, a blissful smile played on your lips; and what generous sympathy for all that was noble and beautiful filled your soul, pure as a little child's! One must tell the truth; you were not remarkable for over great sharpness of intellect; nature had not endowed you with any great memory or industry; at the university you were reckoned among the worst of students; you slept through the lectures, and at the examination you preserved a solemn silence; but who was it whose eyes sparkled, and who became almost breathless with delight, at the success and the triumph of a companion? who but you, Avenir! who believed blindly in the value of his friends, who fondly sang their praises, who stubbornly defended them? who was it that knew neither envy nor selfishness, who always sacrificed himself, and voluntarily placed himself below people who were not fit to black his shoes? — that was ever you, my good Avenir! I remember now how you parted from your comrades with a breaking heart, when you went to fulfil your vocation; evil presentiments overpowered you. They came true; you were badly off in the country; there you had no one to whom you could listen with reverence, no one whom you could admire and love. The sons of the steppes, as well as the educated country gentlefolk, treated you as a tutor; the former did so roughly, the latter contemptuously. It must be owned that you had not precisely a winning exterior. You were shy, you blushed, and you stammered. The country air did not even improve your health; your life went out like a candle, poor fellow!

It is true that the window of your room opened into the garden; elder, apple, and lime trees shed their light blossoms on to your table, your books, and inkstand; on the wall hung a blue silk watch-pocket, a parting gift from a good, kind-hearted German governess with fair hair and blue eyes. Now and then an old friend from Moscow paid you a visit, and delighted you with reading poems of his own or some one else's; but the loneliness, the unbearable slavery of a tutor's life, the impossibility of ever becoming free, the endless autumn and winter days, and at length illness that would not be gainsaid — poor, poor Avenir!

I went to see Sorokoumoff a short time before his death. He could then hardly walk. His employer did not turn him out of the house, but he no longer paid him his salary, and had engaged another tutor for Sosa — Fofa had entered the cadet corps.

Avenir sat in an old armchair at the window. The weather was splendid. The clear blue autumn sky formed a vault over the dark mass of leafless lime-trees, on which the last golden leaves were trembling here and there. The ground, which had been frozen hard in the night, sparkled and thawed in the sun, which cast its slanting red rays over the bleached grass; there was a faint twittering noise in the air; the voices of the gardeners sounded clearly and distinctly from the garden.

Avenir wore an old dressing-gown; his green neckcloth threw a ghastly reflection over his fearfully haggard face. He was immensely pleased to see me, and stretched out his hand to me; but when he began to speak his cough overcame him. I let him recover himself, and sat down beside him. On his knees lay a neatly-written manuscript, containing Koltsoff's poems; he tapped it with his finger, and said with a smile, "There is a poet!" He could scarcely stop coughing, yet he declaimed in a hardly audible voice: —

Are the falcon's wings bound?
Is every way barred to him?

I stopped him. The doctor had forbidden him to speak. I knew how I could give him pleasure. Sorokoumoff had never, as the expression is, "kept pace with the progress of knowledge;" but he was, nevertheless, curious to know how far the great intellects of the day had got. Sometimes he would entice a companion into a corner, and begin to question him; he could listen with astonishment, believe every word, and repeat it faithfully to others. German philosophy had a special interest for him.

I began to talk to him of Hegel. (I am speaking of old days, you see.)

Avenir nodded his head in acquiescence, knitted his brows, smiled and whispered, "I see, I understand! — Ah! good, very good!"

This childlike craving for knowledge in the dying, homeless, forsaken man moved me, I must confess, to tears. It must be observed that Avenir did not, like most consumptive people, deceive himself as to his illness — and yet he never complained, he did not fidget, nor did he ever once allude to his position.

When he had somewhat recovered his strength he talked of Moscow, of his old companions, of Pushin, of the theatre and Russian literature. He called to mind our former feasts, and the fiery debates of that time; he mentioned with regret the names of several dead friends.

"Do you remember Dasha?" he said at last; "that was indeed a golden disposition! what a heart! and how she loved me! — I wonder how she is getting on now? She must be thin and careworn, poor child!"

I would not disturb the sick man's illusion; and, in truth, why need he know that his Dasha was now a fat, rouged woman, full of shrill chidings and a taste for Philistine society. "Only," methought, looking at his haggard face, "could not one get him away from here? After all, it might be possible to cure him." But he would not let me finish my proposal.

"No, brother," he said, "many thanks; it is all the same where one dies. I shall not live over the winter — why should I give people unnecessary trouble? I am accustomed to this house; it is true that the family here are ——"

"Disagreeable?" I broke in.

"No, not disagreeable, but — somehow woodeny; but, however, I have nothing to complain about. There are some neighbors too. One of them, Mr. Kassatkin has a daughter, who is a well-brought-up, amiable girl, not at all proud ——"

Sorokoumoff had another fit of coughing.

"I should not mind it a bit," he continued, when he had recovered his breath, "if only I were allowed to smoke my pipe. But I will not die without having smoked once more," he added, with a sly twinkle in his eye. "Thank God, my life has been well enough. I have known many good people ——"

"You should write to your family," I interposed.

"Why should I? As to help, they cannot help me. If I die, they will hear of it. But why do we talk of this? Much better tell me what you have seen abroad."

I began to talk, he drinking in my words the while.

Towards evening I went away, and ten days afterwards I received the following letter from Krupianikoff: —

"I have herewith the honor of informing you that your friend the student, Avenir Sorokoumoff, lately residing in my house, died the day before yesterday at 2 p.m., and to-day was buried, at my expense, in our parish church. He begged me to send you the accompanying books and papers. He left behind him twenty-two and a half roubles, which, with the rest of his effects, will be transmitted to his family. Your friend was quite conscious when he died, and also, I may add, quite indifferent, for he showed no signs of regret, even when my entire family took leave of him. My wife, Cleopatra Alexandrevna, sends you her compliments. The death of your friend could not of course be without its effect on her nerves; with regard to myself, I am, thank God, in good health, and I have the honor to remain

"Your obedient servant,
"G. Krupianikoff."

Many other instances come into my head, but one cannot tell all one has to say. I will confine myself to one. Some years ago an old lady died in my presence. The priest was reading the prayers for the dying at her bedside, when he suddenly saw that the sick woman was actually at the point of death, so he at once held out the cross for her to kiss.

The old lady turned peevishly away. "Why in such a hurry, father?" she said; "you have time enough to ——" She lay back in bed, tried to put her hand under the pillow, and breathed her last. Under the pillow lay a silver rouble. She had wanted to pay the priest herself for her own deathbed service. . . . Yes, there's something strange in the way in which Russians meet death.