A Sportsman's Sketches, by Ivan Turgenev

XVI Death

I have a neighbour, a young landowner and a young sportsman. One fine July morning I rode over to him with a proposition that we should go out grouse-shooting together. He agreed. ‘Only let’s go,’ he said, ‘to my underwoods at Zusha; I can seize the opportunity to have a look at Tchapligino; you know my oakwood; they’re felling timber there.’ ‘By all means.’ He ordered his horse to be saddled, put on a green coat with bronze buttons, stamped with a boar’s head, a game-bag embroidered in crewels, and a silver flask, slung a new-fangled French gun over his shoulder, turned himself about with some satisfaction before the looking-glass, and called his dog, Hope, a gift from his cousin, an old maid with an excellent heart, but no hair on her head. We started. My neighbour took with him the village constable, Arhip, a stout, squat peasant with a square face and jaws of antediluvian proportions, and an overseer he had recently hired from the Baltic provinces, a youth of nineteen, thin, flaxen-haired, and short-sighted, with sloping shoulders and a long neck, Herr Gottlieb von der Kock. My neighbour had himself only recently come into the property. It had come to him by inheritance from an aunt, the widow of a councillor of state, Madame Kardon-Kataev, an excessively stout woman, who did nothing but lie in her bed, sighing and groaning. We reached the underwoods. ‘You wait for me here at the clearing,’ said Ardalion Mihalitch (my neighbour) addressing his companions. The German bowed, got off his horse, pulled a book out of his pocket — a novel of Johanna Schopenhauer’s, I fancy — and sat down under a bush; Arhip remained in the sun without stirring a muscle for an hour. We beat about among the bushes, but did not come on a single covey. Ardalion Mihalitch announced his intention of going on to the wood. I myself had no faith, somehow, in our luck that day; I, too, sauntered after him. We got back to the clearing. The German noted the page, got up, put the book in his pocket, and with some difficulty mounted his bob-tailed, broken-winded mare, who neighed and kicked at the slightest touch; Arhip shook himself, gave a tug at both reins at once, swung his legs, and at last succeeded in starting his torpid and dejected nag. We set off.

I had been familiar with Ardalion Mihalitch’s wood from my childhood. I had often strolled in Tchapligino with my French tutor, Monsieur Désiré Fleury, the kindest of men (who had, however, almost ruined my constitution for life by dosing me with Leroux’s mixture every evening). The whole wood consisted of some two or three hundred immense oaks and ash-trees. Their stately, powerful trunks were magnificently black against the transparent golden green of the nut bushes and mountain-ashes; higher up, their wide knotted branches stood out in graceful lines against the clear blue sky, unfolding into a tent overhead; hawks, honey-buzzards and kestrels flew whizzing under the motionless tree-tops; variegated wood-peckers tapped loudly on the stout bark; the blackbird’s bell-like trill was heard suddenly in the thick foliage, following on the ever-changing note of the gold-hammer; in the bushes below was the chirp and twitter of hedge-warblers, siskins, and peewits; finches ran swiftly along the paths; a hare would steal along the edge of the wood, halting cautiously as he ran; a squirrel would hop sporting from tree to tree, then suddenly sit still, with its tail over its head. In the grass among the high ant-hills under the delicate shade of the lovely, feathery, deep-indented bracken, were violets and lilies of the valley, and funguses, russet, yellow, brown, red and crimson; in the patches of grass among the spreading bushes red strawberries were to be found. . . . And oh, the shade in the wood! In the most stifling heat, at mid-day, it was like night in the wood: such peace, such fragrance, such freshness. . . . I had spent happy times in Tchapligino, and so, I must own, it was with melancholy feelings I entered the wood I knew so well. The ruinous, snowless winter of 1840 had not spared my old friends, the oaks and the ashes; withered, naked, covered here and there with sickly foliage, they struggled mournfully up above the young growth which ‘took their place, but could never replace them.’

4 In 1840 there were severe frosts, and no snow fell up to the very end of December; all the wintercorn was frozen, and many splendid oak-forests were destroyed by that merciless winter. It will be hard to replace them; the productive force of the land is apparently diminishing; in the ‘interdicted’ wastelands (visited by processions with holy images, and so not to be touched), instead of the noble trees of former days, birches and aspens grow of themselves; and, indeed, they have no idea among us of planting woods at all. — Author’s Note.

Some trees, still covered with leaves below, fling their lifeless, ruined branches upwards, as it were, in reproach and despair; in others, stout, dead, dry branches are thrust out of the midst of foliage still thick, though with none of the luxuriant abundance of old; others have fallen altogether, and lie rotting like corpses on the ground. And — who could have dreamed of this in former days? — there was no shade — no shade to be found anywhere in Tchapligino! ‘Ah,’ I thought, looking at the dying trees: ‘isn’t it shameful and bitter for you?’ . . . Koltsov’s lines recurred to me:

‘What has become

Of the mighty voices,

The haughty strength,

The royal pomp?

Where now is the

Wealth of green? . . .

‘How is it, Ardalion Mihalitch,’ I began, ‘that they didn’t fell these trees the very next year? You see they won’t give for them now a tenth of what they would have done before.’

He merely shrugged his shoulders.

‘You should have asked my aunt that; the timber merchants came, offered money down, pressed the matter, in fact.’

Mein Gott! mein Gott!‘ Von der Kock cried at every step. ‘Vat a bity, vat a bity!’

‘What’s a bity!’ observed my neighbour with a smile.

‘That is; how bitiful, I meant to say.’

What particularly aroused his regrets were the oaks lying on the ground — and, indeed, many a miller would have given a good sum for them. But the constable Arhip preserved an unruffled composure, and did not indulge in any lamentations; on the contrary, he seemed even to jump over them and crack his whip on them with a certain satisfaction.

We were getting near the place where they were cutting down the trees, when suddenly a shout and hurried talk was heard, following on the crash of a falling tree, and a few instants after a young peasant, pale and dishevelled, dashed out of the thicket towards us.

‘What is it? where are you running?’ Ardalion Mihalitch asked him.

He stopped at once.

‘Ah, Ardalion Mihalitch, sir, an accident!’

‘What is it?’

‘Maksim, sir, crushed by a tree.’

‘How did it happen? . . . Maksim the foreman?’

‘The foreman, sir. We’d started cutting an ash-tree, and he was standing looking on. . . . He stood there a bit, and then off he went to the well for some water — wanted a drink, seemingly — when suddenly the ash-tree began creaking and coming straight towards him. We shout to him: ‘Run, run, run!’. . . . He should have rushed to one side, but he up and ran straight before him. . . . He was scared, to be sure. The ash-tree covered him with its top branches. But why it fell so soon, the Lord only knows! . . . Perhaps it was rotten at the core.’

‘And so it crushed Maksim?’

‘Yes, sir.’

‘To death?’

‘No, sir, he’s still alive — but as good as dead; his arms and legs are crushed. I was running for Seliverstitch, for the doctor.’

Ardalion Mihalitch told the constable to gallop to the village for Seliverstitch, while he himself pushed on at a quick trot to the clearing. . . . I followed him.

We found poor Maksim on the ground. The peasants were standing about him. We got off our horses. He hardly moaned at all; from time to time he opened his eyes wide, looked round, as it were, in astonishment, and bit his lips, fast turning blue. . . . The lower part of his face was twitching; his hair was matted on his brow; his breast heaved irregularly: he was dying. The light shade of a young lime-tree glided softly over his face.

We bent down to him. He recognised Ardalion Mihalitch.

‘Please sir,’ he said to him, hardly articulately, ‘send . . . for the priest . . . tell . . . the Lord . . . has punished me . . . arms, legs, all smashed . . . to-day’s . . . Sunday . . . and I . . . I . . . see . . . didn’t let the lads off . . . work.’

He ceased, out of breath.

‘And my money . . . for my wife . . . after deducting. . . . Onesim here knows . . . whom I . . . what I owe.’

‘We’ve sent for the doctor, Maksim,’ said my neighbour; ‘perhaps you may not die yet.’

He tried to open his eyes, and with an effort raised the lids.

‘No, I’m dying. Here . . . here it is coming . . . here it. . . . Forgive me, lads, if in any way. . . . ’

‘God will forgive you, Maksim Andreitch,’ said the peasants thickly with one voice, and they took off their caps; ‘do you forgive us!’

He suddenly shook his head despairingly, his breast heaved with a painful effort, and he fell back again.

‘We can’t let him lie here and die, though,’ cried Ardalion Mihalitch; ‘lads, give us the mat from the cart, and carry him to the hospital.’

Two men ran to the cart.

‘I bought a horse . . . yesterday,’ faltered the dying man, ‘off Efim . . . Sitchovsky . . . paid earnest money . . . so the horse is mine. . . . Give it . . . to my wife. . . . ’

They began to move him on to the mat. . . . He trembled all over, like a wounded bird, and stiffened. . . .

‘He is dead,’ muttered the peasants.

We mounted our horses in silence and rode away.

The death of poor Maksim set me musing. How wonderfully indeed the Russian peasant dies! The temper in which he meets his end cannot be called indifference or stolidity; he dies as though he were performing a solemn rite, coolly and simply.

A few years ago a peasant belonging to another neighbour of mine in the country got burnt in the drying shed, where the corn is put. (He would have remained there, but a passing pedlar pulled him out half-dead; he plunged into a tub of water, and with a run broke down the door of the burning outhouse.) I went to his hut to see him. It was dark, smoky, stifling, in the hut. I asked, ‘Where is the sick man?’ ‘There, sir, on the stove,’ the sorrowing peasant woman answered me in a sing-song voice. I went up; the peasant was lying covered with a sheepskin, breathing heavily. ‘Well, how do you feel?’ The injured man stirred on the stove; all over burns, within sight of death as he was, tried to rise. ‘Lie still, lie still, lie still. . . . Well, how are you?’ ‘In a bad way, surely,’ said he. ‘Are you in pain?’ No answer. ‘Is there anything you want?’— No answer. ‘Shouldn’t I send you some tea, or anything.’ ‘There’s no need.’ I moved away from him and sat down on the bench. I sat there a quarter of an hour; I sat there half an hour — the silence of the tomb in the hut. In the corner behind the table under the holy pictures crouched a little girl of twelve years old, eating a piece of bread. Her mother threatened her every now and then. In the outer room there was coming and going, noise and talk: the brother’s wife was chopping cabbage. ‘Hey, Aksinya,’ said the injured man at last. ‘What?’ ‘Some kvas.‘Aksinya gave him some kvas. Silence again. I asked in a whisper, ‘Have they given him the sacrament?’ ‘Yes.’ So, then, everything was in order: he was waiting for death, that was all. I could not bear it, and went away. . . .

Again, I recall how I went one day to the hospital in the village of Krasnogorye to see the surgeon Kapiton, a friend of mine, and an enthusiastic sportsman.

This hospital consisted of what had once been the lodge of the manor-house; the lady of the manor had founded it herself; in other words, she ordered a blue board to be nailed up above the door with an inscription in white letters: ‘Krasnogorye Hospital,’ and had herself handed to Kapiton a red album to record the names of the patients in. On the first page of this album one of the toadying parasites of this Lady Bountiful had inscribed the following lines:

‘Dans ces beaux lieux, où règne l’allégresse

Ce temple fut ouvert par la Beauté;

De vos seigneurs admirez la tendresse

Bons habitants de Krasnogorié!’

while another gentleman had written below:

‘Et moi aussi j’aime la nature!

JEAN KOBYLIATNIKOFF.’

The surgeon bought six beds at his own expense, and had set to work in a thankful spirit to heal God’s people. Besides him, the staff consisted of two persons; an engraver, Pavel, liable to attacks of insanity, and a one-armed peasant woman, Melikitrisa, who performed the duties of cook. Both of them mixed the medicines and dried and infused herbs; they, too, controlled the patients when they were delirious. The insane engraver was sullen in appearance and sparing of words; at night he would sing a song about ‘lovely Venus,’ and would besiege every one he met with a request for permission to marry a girl called Malanya, who had long been dead. The one-armed peasant woman used to beat him and set him to look after the turkeys. Well, one day I was at Kapiton’s. We had begun talking over our last day’s shooting, when suddenly a cart drove into the yard, drawn by an exceptionally stout horse, such as are only found belonging to millers. In the cart sat a thick-set peasant, in a new greatcoat, with a beard streaked with grey. ‘Hullo, Vassily Dmitritch,’ Kapiton shouted from the window; ‘please come in. . . . The miller of Liobovshin,’ he whispered to me. The peasant climbed groaning out of the cart, came into the surgeon’s room, and after looking for the holy pictures, crossed himself, bowing to them. ‘Well, Vassily Dmitritch, any news? . . . But you must be ill; you don’t look well.’ ‘Yes, Kapiton Timofeitch, there’s something not right.’ ‘What’s wrong with you?’ ‘Well, it was like this, Kapiton Timofeitch. Not long ago I bought some mill-stones in the town, so I took them home, and as I went to lift them out of the cart, I strained myself, or something; I’d a sort of rick in the loins, as though something had been torn away, and ever since I’ve been out of sorts. To-day I feel worse than ever.’ ‘Hm,’ commented Kapiton, and he took a pinch of snuff; ‘that’s a rupture, no doubt. But is it long since this happened?’ ‘It’s ten days now.’ ‘Ten days?’ (The surgeon drew a long inward breath and shook his head.) ‘Let me examine you.’ ‘Well, Vassily Dmitritch,’ he pronounced at last, ‘I am sorry for you, heartily sorry, but things aren’t right with you at all; you’re seriously ill; stay here with me; I will do everything I can, for my part, though I can’t answer for anything.’ ‘So bad as that?’ muttered the astounded peasant. ‘Yes, Vassily Dmitritch, it is bad; if you’d come to me a day or two sooner, it would have been nothing much; I could have cured you in a trice; but now inflammation has set in; before we know where we are, there’ll be mortification.’ ‘But it can’t be, Kapiton Timofeitch.’ ‘I tell you it is so.’ ‘But how comes it?’ (The surgeon shrugged his shoulders.) ‘And I must die for a trifle like that?’ ‘I don’t say that . . . only you must stop here.’ The peasant pondered and pondered, his eyes fixed on the floor, then he glanced up at us, scratched his head, and picked up his cap. ‘Where are you off to, Vassily Dmitritch?’ ‘Where? why, home to be sure, if it’s so bad. I must put things to rights, if it’s like that.’ ‘But you’ll do yourself harm, Vassily Dmitritch; you will, really; I’m surprised how you managed to get here; you must stop.’ ‘No, brother, Kapiton Timofeitch, if I must die, I’ll die at home; why die here? I’ve got a home, and the Lord knows how it will end.’ ‘No one can tell yet, Vassily Dmitritch, how it will end. . . . Of course, there is danger, considerable danger; there’s no disputing that . . . but for that reason you ought to stay here.’ (The peasant shook his head.) ‘No, Kapiton Timofeitch, I won’t stay . . . but perhaps you will prescribe me a medicine.’ ‘Medicine alone will be no good.’ ‘I won’t stay, I tell you.’ ‘Well, as you like. . . . Mind you don’t blame me for it afterwards.’

The surgeon tore a page out of the album, and, writing out a prescription, gave him some advice as to what he could do besides. The peasant took the sheet of paper, gave Kapiton half-a-rouble, went out of the room, and took his seat in the cart. ‘Well, good-bye, Kapiton Timofeitch, don’t remember evil against me, and remember my orphans, if anything. . . . ’ ‘Oh, do stay, Vassily!’ The peasant simply shook his head, struck the horse with the reins, and drove out of the yard. The road was muddy and full of holes; the miller drove cautiously, without hurry, guiding his horse skilfully, and nodding to the acquaintances he met. Three days later he was dead.

The Russians, in general, meet death in a marvellous way. Many of the dead come back now to my memory. I recall you, my old friend, who left the university with no degree, Avenir Sorokoumov, noblest, best of men! I see once again your sickly, consumptive face, your lank brown tresses, your gentle smile, your ecstatic glance, your long limbs; I can hear your weak, caressing voice. You lived at a Great Russian landowner’s, called Gur Krupyanikov, taught his children, Fofa and Zyozya, Russian grammar, geography, and history, patiently bore all the ponderous jokes of the said Gur, the coarse familiarities of the steward, the vulgar pranks of the spiteful urchins; with a bitter smile, but without repining, you complied with the caprices of their bored and exacting mother; but to make up for it all, what bliss, what peace was yours in the evening, after supper, when, free at last of all duties, you sat at the window pensively smoking a pipe, or greedily turned the pages of a greasy and mutilated number of some solid magazine, brought you from the town by the land-surveyor — just such another poor, homeless devil as yourself! How delighted you were then with any sort of poem or novel; how readily the tears started into your eyes; with what pleasure you laughed; what genuine love for others, what generous sympathy for everything good and noble, filled your pure youthful soul! One must tell the truth: you were not distinguished by excessive sharpness of wit; Nature had endowed you with neither memory nor industry; at the university you were regarded as one of the least promising students; at lectures you slumbered, at examinations you preserved a solemn silence; but who was beaming with delight and breathless with excitement at a friend’s success, a friend’s triumphs? . . . Avenir! . . . Who had a blind faith in the lofty destiny of his friends? who extolled them with pride? who championed them with angry vehemence? who was innocent of envy as of vanity? who was ready for the most disinterested self-sacrifice? who eagerly gave way to men who were not worthy to untie his latchet? . . . That was you, all you, our good Avenir! I remember how broken-heartedly you parted from your comrades, when you were going away to be a tutor in the country; you were haunted by presentiment of evil. . . . And, indeed, your lot was a sad one in the country; you had no one there to listen to with veneration, no one to admire, no one to love. . . . The neighbours — rude sons of the steppes, and polished gentlemen alike — treated you as a tutor: some, with rudeness and neglect, others carelessly. Besides, you were not pre-possessing in person; you were shy, given to blushing, getting hot and stammering. . . . Even your health was no better for the country air: you wasted like a candle, poor fellow! It is true your room looked out into the garden; wild cherries, apple-trees, and limes strewed their delicate blossoms on your table, your ink-stand, your books; on the wall hung a blue silk watch-pocket, a parting present from a kind-hearted, sentimental German governess with flaxen curls and little blue eyes; and sometimes an old friend from Moscow would come out to you and throw you into ecstasies with new poetry, often even with his own. But, oh, the loneliness, the insufferable slavery of a tutor’s lot! the impossibility of escape, the endless autumns and winters, the ever-advancing disease! . . . Poor, poor Avenir!

I paid Sorokoumov a visit not long before his death. He was then hardly able to walk. The landowner, Gur Krupyanikov, had not turned him out of the house, but had given up paying him a salary, and had taken another tutor for Zyozya. . . . Fofa had been sent to a school of cadets. Avenir was sitting near the window in an old easy-chair. It was exquisite weather. The clear autumn sky was a bright blue above the dark-brown line of bare limes; here and there a few last leaves of lurid gold rustled and whispered about them. The earth had been covered with frost, now melting into dewdrops in the sun, whose ruddy rays fell aslant across the pale grass; there was a faint crisp resonance in the air; the voices of the labourers in the garden reached us clearly and distinctly. Avenir wore an old Bokhara dressing-gown; a green neckerchief threw a deathly hue over his terribly sunken face. He was greatly delighted to see me, held out his hand, began talking and coughing at once. I made him be quiet, and sat down by him. . . . On Avenir’s knee lay a manuscript book of Koltsov’s poems, carefully copied out; he patted it with a smile. ‘That’s a poet,’ he stammered, with an effort repressing his cough; and he fell to declaiming in a voice scarcely audible:

‘Can the eagle’s wings

Be chained and fettered?

Can the pathways of heaven

Be closed against him?’

I stopped him: the doctor had forbidden him to talk. I knew what would please him. Sorokoumov never, as they say, ‘kept up’ with the science of the day; but he was always anxious to know what results the leading intellects had reached. Sometimes he would get an old friend into a corner and begin questioning him; he would listen and wonder, take every word on trust, and even repeat it all after him. He took a special interest in German philosophy. I began discoursing to him about Hegel (this all happened long ago, as you may gather). Avenir nodded his head approvingly, raised his eyebrows, smiled, and whispered: ‘I see! I see! ah, that’s splendid! splendid!’ . . . The childish curiosity of this poor, dying, homeless outcast, moved me, I confess, to tears. It must be noted that Avenir, unlike the general run of consumptives, did not deceive himself in regard to his disease. . . . But what of that? — he did not sigh, nor grieve; he did not even once refer to his position. . . .

Rallying his strength, he began talking of Moscow, of old friends, of Pushkin, of the drama, of Russian literature; he recalled our little suppers, the heated debates of our circle; with regret he uttered the names of two or three friends who were dead. . . .

‘Do you remember Dasha?’ he went on. ‘Ah, there was a heart of pure gold! What a heart! and how she loved me! . . . What has become of her now? Wasted and fallen away, poor dear, I daresay!’

I had not the courage to disillusion the sick man; and, indeed, why should he know that his Dasha was now broader than she was long, and that she was living under the protection of some merchants, the brothers Kondatchkov, that she used powder and paint, and was for ever swearing and scolding?

‘But can’t we,’ I thought, looking at his wasted face, ‘get him away from here? Perhaps there may still be a chance of curing him.’ But Avenir cut short my suggestion.

‘No, brother, thanks,’ he said; ‘it makes no difference where one dies. I shan’t live till the winter, you see. . . . Why give trouble for nothing? I’m used to this house. It’s true the people . . . ’

‘They’re unkind, eh?’ I put in.

‘No, not unkind! but wooden-headed creatures. However, I can’t complain of them. There are neighbours: there’s a Mr. Kasatkin’s daughter, a cultivated, kind, charming girl . . . not proud . . . ’

Sorokoumov began coughing again.

‘I shouldn’t mind anything,’ he went on, after taking breath, ‘if they’d only let me smoke my pipe. . . . But I’ll have my pipe, if I die for it!’ he added, with a sly wink. ‘Thank God, I have had life enough! I have known so many fine people.

‘But you should, at least, write to your relations,’ I interrupted.

‘Why write to them? They can’t be any help; when I die they’ll hear of it. But, why talk about it . . . I’d rather you’d tell me what you saw abroad.’

I began to tell him my experiences. He seemed positively to gloat over my story. Towards evening I left, and ten days later I received the following letter from Mr. Krupyanikov:

‘I have the honour to inform you, my dear sir, that your friend, the student, living in my house, Mr. Avenir Sorokoumov, died at two o’clock in the afternoon, three days ago, and was buried to-day, at my expense, in the parish church. He asked me to forward you the books and manuscripts enclosed herewith. He was found to have twenty-two roubles and a half, which, with the rest of his belongings, pass into the possession of his relatives. Your friend died fully conscious, and, I may say, with so little sensibility that he showed no signs of regret even when the whole family of us took a last farewell of him. My wife, Kleopatra Aleksandrovna, sends you her regards. The death of your friend has, of course, affected her nerves; as regards myself, I am, thank God, in good health, and have the honour to remain, your humble servant,’

‘G. KRUPYANIKOV.’

Many more examples recur to me, but one cannot relate everything. I will confine myself to one.

I was present at an old lady’s death-bed; the priest had begun reading the prayers for the dying over her, but, suddenly noticing that the patient seemed to be actually dying, he made haste to give her the cross to kiss. The lady turned away with an air of displeasure. ‘You’re in too great a hurry, father,’ she said, in a voice almost inarticulate; ‘in too great a hurry.’ . . . She kissed the cross, put her hand under the pillow and expired. Under the pillow was a silver rouble; she had meant to pay the priest for the service at her own death. . . .

Yes, the Russians die in a wonderful way.

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Last updated Tuesday, March 4, 2014 at 20:19