The House of the Dead, by Fyodor Dostoyevsky

Chapter 11.

The Christmas Holidays

The holidays were approaching. On the eve of the great day the convicts scarcely ever went to work. Those who had been assigned to the sewing workshops, and a few others, went to work as usual; but they went back almost immediately to the convict prison, separately, or in parties. After dinner no one worked. From the early morning the greater part of the convicts were occupied with their own affairs, and not with those of the administration. Some were making arrangements for bringing in spirits, while others were seeking permission to see their friends, or to collect small accounts due to them for the work they had already executed. Baklouchin, and the convicts who were to take part in the performance, were endeavouring to persuade some of their acquaintances, nearly all officers’ servants, to procure for them the necessary costumes. Some of them came and went with a business-like air, solely because others were really occupied. They had no money to receive, and yet seemed to expect a payment. Every one, in short, seemed to be looking for a change of some kind. Towards evening the old soldiers, who executed the convicts’ commissions, brought them all kinds of victuals—meat, sucking-pigs, and geese. Many prisoners, even the most simple and most economical, after saving up their kopecks throughout the year, thought they ought to spend some of them that day, so as to celebrate Christmas Eve in a worthy manner. The day afterwards was for the convicts a still greater festival, one to which they had a right, as it was recognised by law. The prisoners could not be sent to work that day. There were not three days like it in all the year.

And, moreover, what recollections must have been agitating the souls of those reprobates at the approach of such a solemn day! The common people from their childhood kept the great festival in their memory. They must have remembered with anguish and torments these days which, work being laid aside, are passed in the bosom of the family. The respect of the convicts for that day had something imposing about it. The drunkards were not at all numerous; nearly every one was serious, and, so to say, preoccupied, though they had for the most part nothing to do. Even those who feasted most preserved a serious air. Laughter seemed to be forbidden. A sort of intolerant susceptibility reigned throughout the prison; and if any one interfered with the general repose, even involuntarily, he was soon put in his proper place, with cries and oaths. He was condemned as though he had been wanting in respect to the festival itself.

This disposition of the convicts was remarkable, and even touching. Besides the innate veneration they have for this great day, they foresee that in observing the festival they are in communion with the rest of the world; that they are not altogether reprobates lost and cast off by society. The usual rejoicings took place in the convict prison as well as outside. They felt all that. I saw it, and understood it myself.

Akim Akimitch had made great preparations for the festival. He had no family recollections, being an orphan, born in a strange house, and put into the army at the age of fifteen. He could never have experienced any great joys, having always lived regularly and uniformly in the fear of infringing the rules imposed upon him, nor was he very religious; for his acquired formality had stifled in him all human feeling, all passions and likings, good or bad. He accordingly prepared to keep Christmas without exciting himself about it. He was saddened by no painful, useless recollection. He did everything with the punctuality imposed upon him in the execution of his duties, and in order once for all to get through the ceremony in a becoming manner. Moreover, he did not care to reflect upon the importance of the day, had never troubled his brain about it, even while he was executing his prescribed duties with religious minuteness. If he had been ordered the day following to do contrary to what he had done the evening before he would have done it with equal submission. Once in life, once, and once only, he had wished to act by his own impulse—and he had been sent to hard labour for it.

This lesson had not been lost upon him, although it was written that he was never to understand his fault. He had yet become impressed with this salutary moral principle: never to reason in any matter because his mind was not equal to the task of judging. Blindly devoted to ceremonies, he looked with respect at the sucking-pig which he had stuffed with millet-seed, and which he had roasted himself (for he had some culinary skill), just as if it had not been an ordinary sucking-pig which could have been bought and roasted at any time, but a particular kind of animal born specially for Christmas Day. Perhaps he had been accustomed from his tender infancy to see that day a sucking-pig on the table, and he may have concluded that a sucking-pig was indispensable for the proper celebration of the festival. I am certain that if by ill-luck he had not eaten this particular kind of meat on that day, he would have been troubled with remorse all his life for not having done his duty. Until Christmas morning he wore his old vest and his old trousers, which had long been threadbare. I then learned that he kept carefully in his box his new clothes which had been given to him four months before, and that he had not put them on once, in order that he might wear them for the first time on Christmas Day. He did so. The evening before he took his new clothes out of his trunk, unfolded, examined them, cleaned them, blew on them to remove the dust, and when he was convinced that they were perfect, probably tried them on. The dress became him perfectly; all the different garments suited one another. The waistcoat buttoned up to the neck, the collar, straight and stiff like cardboard, kept his chin in its proper place. There was a military cut about the dress; and Akim Akimitch, as he wore it, smiled with satisfaction, turning himself round and round, not without swagger, before a little mirror adorned with a gilt border.

One of the waistcoat-buttons alone seemed out of place; Akim Akimitch remarked it, and at once set it right. He tried on the vest again and found it irreproachable. Then he folded up his things as before, and with a satisfied mind locked them up in his box until the next day. His skull was sufficiently shaved; but, after careful examination, Akim Akimitch came to the conclusion that it was not in good condition, his hair had imperceptibly sprung up. He accordingly went immediately to the “Major” to be properly shaved according to the rules. In reality no one would have dreamed of looking at him next day, but he was acting conscientiously in order to fulfil all his duties. This care lest the smallest button, the least thread of an epaulette, the slightest string of a tassel should go wrong, was engraved in his mind as an imperious duty, and in his heart as the image of the most perfect order that could possibly be attained. As one of the “old hands” in the barracks, he saw that hay was brought and strewed about on the floor; the same thing was done in the other barracks. I do not know why, but hay was always strewed on the ground at Christmas time.

As soon as Akim Akimitch had finished his work he said his prayers, stretched himself on his bed, and went to sleep, with the sleep of a child, in order to wake up as early as possible the next day. The other convicts did the same. It must be added that all of them went to bed, but sooner than usual. They gave up their ordinary evening work that day. As for playing cards, no one would have dared even to speak of such a thing; every one was anxiously expecting the next morning.

At last this morning arrived. At an early hour, even before it was light, the drum was sounded, and the under officer, whose duty it was to count the convicts, wished them a happy Christmas. The prisoners answered him in an affable and amiable tone by expressing a like wish. Akim Akimitch, and many others, who had their geese and their sucking-pigs, went to the kitchen, after saying their prayers, in a hurried manner to see where their victuals were and how they were being cooked.

Through the little windows of our barracks, half hidden by the snow and the ice, could be seen, flaring in the darkness, the bright fire of the two kitchens where six stoves had been lighted. In the court-yard, where it was still dark, the convicts, each with a half pelisse round his shoulders, or perhaps fully dressed, were hurrying towards the kitchen. Some of them, meanwhile—a very small number—had already visited the drink-sellers. They were the impatient ones, but they behaved becomingly, possibly much better than on ordinary days; neither quarrels nor insults were heard, every one understood that it was a great day, a great festival. The convicts went even to visit the other barracks in order to wish the inmates a happy Christmas; that day a sort of friendship seemed to exist between them all. I will remark in passing that the convicts have scarcely ever any intimate friendships. It was very rare to see a man on confidential terms with any other man, as, in the outer world. We were generally harsh and abrupt in our mutual relations. With some rare exceptions this was the general tone adopted and maintained.

I went out of the barracks like the others. It was beginning to get late. The stars were paling, a light, icy mist was rising from the earth, and spirals of smoke were ascending in curls from the chimneys. Several convicts whom I met wished me, with affability, a happy Christmas. I thanked them and returned their wishes. Some of them had never spoken to me before.

Near the kitchen, a convict from the military barracks, with his sheepskin on his shoulder, came up to me. Recognising me, he called out from the middle of the court-yard, “Alexander Petrovitch.” He ran towards me. I waited for him. He was a young fellow, with a round face and soft eyes, and not at all communicative as a rule. He had not spoken to me since my arrival, and seemed never to have noticed me. I did not know on my side what his name was. When he came up, he remained planted before me, smiling with a vacuous smile, but with a happy expression of countenance.

“What do you want?” I asked, not without astonishment.

He remained standing before me, still smiling and staring, but without replying to my question.

“Why, it is Christmas Day,” he muttered.

He understood that he had nothing more to say, and now hastened into the kitchen.

I must add that, after this we scarcely ever met, and that we never spoke to one another again.

Round the flaming stoves of the kitchen the convicts were rubbing and pushing against one another. Every one was watching his own property. The cooks were preparing the dinner, which was to take place a little earlier than usual. No one began to eat before the time, though a good many wished to do so; but it was necessary to be well-behaved before the others. We were waiting for the priest, and the fast preceding Christmas would not be at an end until his arrival.

It was not yet perfectly light, when the corporal was already heard shouting out from behind the principal gate of the prison:

“The kitchen; the kitchen.”

These calls were repeated without interruption for about two hours. The cooks were wanted in order to receive gifts brought from all parts of the town in enormous numbers; loaves of white bread, scones, rusks, pancakes, and pastry of various kinds. I do not think there was a shop-keeper in the whole town who did not send something to the “unfortunates.” Amongst these gifts there were some magnificent ones, including a good many cakes of the finest flour. There were also some very poor ones, such as rolls worth two kopecks a piece, and a couple of brown rolls, covered lightly over with sour cream. These were the offerings of the poor to the poor, on which a last kopeck had often been spent.

All these gifts were accepted with equal gratitude, without reference to the value or the giver. The convicts, on receiving the offerings, took off their caps and thanked the donors with low bows, wishing them a happy Christmas, and then carried the things to the kitchen.

When a number of loaves and cakes had been collected, the elders of each barrack were called, and it was for them to divide the whole in equal portions among all the sections. The division excited neither protest nor annoyance. It was made honestly, equitably. Akim Akimitch, helped by another prisoner, divided between the convicts of our barracks the share assigned to us, and gave to each of us what came to him. Every one was satisfied. No objection was made by any one. There was not the least manifestation of envy, and it occurred to no one to deceive another.

When Akim Akimitch had finished at the kitchen, he proceeded religiously to dress himself, and did so with a solemn air. He buttoned up his waistcoat button by button, in the most punctilious manner. Then, when he had got his new clothes on, he went to pray, which occupied him a considerable time. Numbers of convicts fulfilled their religious duties, but these were for the most part old men. The young men scarcely ever prayed. The most they did was to make the sign of the cross when they rose from table, and that happened only on festival days.

Akim Akimitch came up to me as soon as he had finished his prayer, to express to me the usual good wishes. I invited him to have some tea, and he returned my politeness by offering me some of his sucking-pig. After some time Petroff came up to address to me the usual compliments. I think he had been already drinking, and although he seemed to have much to say, he scarcely spoke. He stood up before me for some seconds, and then went back to the kitchen. The priest was now expected in the military section of the barracks. This section was not constructed like the others. The camp-bedsteads were arranged all along the wall, and not in the middle of the room as in all the others, so that it was the only one in which the middle was not obstructed. It had been probably arranged in this manner so that in case of necessity it might be easier to assemble the convicts. A small table had been prepared in the middle of the room, and a holy image placed upon it, before which burned a little lamp.

At last the priest arrived, with the cross and holy water. He prayed and chanted before the image, and then turned towards the convicts, who one after the other came and kissed the cross. The priest then walked through all the barracks, sprinkling them with holy water. When he got to the kitchen he praised the bread of the convict prison, which had quite a reputation in town. The convicts at once expressed a desire to send him two loaves of new bread, still hot, which an old soldier was ordered to take to his house forthwith. The convicts walked back after the cross with the same respect as they had received it. Almost immediately afterwards, the Major and the Commandant arrived. The Commandant was liked, and even respected. He made the tour of the barracks in company with the Major, wished the convicts a happy Christmas, went into the kitchen, and tasted the cabbage soup. It was excellent that day. Each convict was entitled to nearly a pound of meat, besides which there was millet-seed in it, and certainly the butter had not been spared. The Major saw the Commandant to the door, and then ordered the convicts to begin dinner. Each endeavoured not to be under the Major’s eyes. They did not like his spiteful, inquisitorial look from behind his spectacles as he wandered from right to left, seeking apparently some disorder to repress, some crime to punish.

We dined. Akim Akimitch’s sucking-pig was admirably roasted. I could never understand how, five minutes after the Major left, there was a mass of drunken prisoners, whereas as long as he remained every one was perfectly calm. Red, radiant faces were now numerous, and the balalaiki [Russian banjoes] soon appeared. Then came the little Pole, playing his violin, a convivial prisoner having engaged him for the whole day to play lively dance-tunes. The conversation became more animated and more noisy, but the dinner ended without great disorders. Every one had had enough. Some of the old men, serious-minded convicts, went immediately to bed. So did Akim Akimitch, who probably thought it was a duty to go to sleep after dinner on festival days.

The “old believer” from Starodoub, after having slumbered a little, climbed up on to the top of the stove, opened his book, and prayed the entire day until late in the evening without interruption. The spectacle of so shameless an orgie was painful to him, he said. All the Circassians left the table. They looked with curiosity, but with a touch of disgust, at this drunken society. I met Nourra.

“Aman, aman,” he said, with a burst of honest indignation, and shaking his head. “What an offence to Allah!” Isaiah Fomitch lighted, with an arrogant and obstinate air, a candle in his favourite corner, and went to work in order to show that in his eyes this was no holiday. Here and there card parties were arranged. The convicts did not fear the old soldiers, but men were placed on the look-out in case the under officer should suddenly come in. He made a point, however, of seeing nothing. The officer of the guard made altogether three rounds. The prisoners, if they were drunk, hid themselves at once. The cards disappeared in the twinkling of an eye. I fancy that he had made up his mind not to notice any contraventions of an unimportant kind. Drunkenness was not an offence that day. Little by little every one became more or less gay. Then there were some quarrels. The greater number of the prisoners, however, remained calm, amusing themselves with the spectacle of those who were intoxicated. Some of these drank without limit.

Gazin was triumphant. He walked about with a self-satisfied air, by the side of his camp bedstead, beneath which he had concealed his spirits, previously buried beneath the snow behind the barracks, in a secret place. He smiled knowingly when he saw customers arrive in crowds. He was perfectly calm. He had drunk nothing at all; for it was his intention to regale himself the last day of the holidays, after he had emptied the pockets of the other prisoners. Throughout the barracks the drunkenness was becoming infernal. Singing was heard, and the songs were giving way to tears. Some of the prisoners walked about in bands, sheepskin on shoulder, striking with a haughty air the strings of their balalaiki. A chorus of from eight to ten men had been formed in the special section. The singing here was excellent, with its accompaniments of balalaiki and guitars.

Songs of a truly popular kind were rare. I remember one which was admirably sung:

Yesterday, I, a young girl,

Went to the feast.

A variation was introduced previously unknown to me. At the end of the song these lines were added:

At my house, the house of a young girl,

Everything is in order.

I have washed the spoons,

I have turned out the cabbage-soup,

I have wiped down the panels of the door,

I have cooked the patties.

What they chiefly sang were prison songs; one of them, called “As it happened,” was very humorous. It related how a man amused himself, and lived like a prince until he was sent to the convict prison, where he fared very differently. Another song, only too popular, set forth how the hero of it had formerly possessed capital, but had now nothing but captivity. Here is a true convict’s song:

The day breaks in the heavens,

We are waked up by the drum.

The old man opens the door,

The warder comes and calls us.

No one sees us behind the prison walls,

Nor how we live in this place.

But God, the Heavenly Creator, is with us

He will not let us perish.

Another still more melancholy, but with a superb melody, was sung to tame and incorrect words. I can remember a few of the verses:

My eyes no more will see the land,

Where I was born;

To suffer torments undeserved,

Will be my punishment.

The owl will shriek upon the roof,

And raise the echoes of the forest.

My heart is broken down with grief.

No, never more shall I return.

This song is often sung; not as a chorus, but always as a solo. When the work is over, a prisoner goes out of the barracks, sits down on the threshold, meditates with his chin resting on his hand, and then drawls out his song in a high falsetto. One listens to him, and the effect is heart-breaking. Some of our convicts had beautiful voices.

Meanwhile it was getting dusk. Wearisomeness and general depression were making themselves felt through the drunkenness and the debauchery. The prisoner, who an hour beforehand was holding his sides with laughter, now sobbed in a corner, exceedingly drunk; others were fighting, or wandering in a tottering manner through the barracks, pale, very pale, and seeking whom to quarrel with. These poor people had wished to pass the great festival in the most joyous manner, but, gracious heaven, how painful the day was for all of them! They had passed it in the vague hope of a happiness that was not to be realised. Petroff came up to me twice. As he had drunk very little he was calm; but until the last moment he expected something which he made sure would happen, something extraordinary, and highly diverting. Although he said nothing about it, this could be seen from his looks. He ran from barrack to barrack without fatigue. Nothing, however, happened; nothing except general intoxication, idiotic insults from drunkards, and general giddiness of heated heads.

Sirotkin wandered about also, dressed in a brand-new red shirt, going from barrack to barrack, and good-looking as usual. He also was on the watch for something to happen. The spectacle became insupportably repulsive, indeed nauseating. There were some laughable things, but I was too sad to be amused by them. I felt a deep pity for all these men, and felt strangled, stifled, in the midst of them. Here two convicts were disputing as to which should treat the other. The dispute lasts a long time; they have almost come to blows. One of them has, for a long time past, had a grudge against the other. He complains, stammering as he does so, and tries to prove to his companion that he acted unjustly when, a year before, he sold a pelisse and concealed the money. There was more than this too. The complainant is a tall young fellow, with good muscular development, quiet, by no means stupid, but who, when he is drunk, wishes to make friends with every one, and to pour out his grief into their bosom. He insults his adversary with the intention of becoming reconciled to him later on. The other man, a big, massive person, with a round face, as cunning as a fox, had perhaps drunk more than his companion, but appeared only slightly intoxicated. This convict has character, and passes for a rich man; he has probably no interest in irritating his companion, and he accordingly leads him to one of the drink-sellers. The expansive friend declares that his companion owes him money, and that he is bound to stand him a drink “if he has any pretensions to be considered an honest man.”

The drink-seller, not without some respect for his customer, and with a touch of contempt for the expansive friend (for he was drinking at the expense of another man), took a glass and filled it with vodka.

“No, Stepka, you must pay, because you owe me money.”

“I won’t tire my tongue talking to you any longer,” replied Stepka.

“No, Stepka, you lie,” continues his friend, taking up a glass offered to him by the drink-seller. “You owe me money, and you must be without conscience. You have not a thing about you that you have not borrowed, and I don’t believe your very eyes are your own. In a word, Stepka, you are a blackguard.”

“What are you whining about? Look, you are spilling your vodka.”

“If you are being treated, why don’t you drink?” cries the drink-seller, to the expansive friend. “I cannot wait here until tomorrow.”

“I will drink, don’t be frightened. What are you crying out about? My best wishes for the day. My best wishes for the day, Stepan Doroveitch,” replies the latter politely, as he bows, glass in hand, towards Stepka, whom the moment before he had called a blackguard. “Good health to you, and may you live a hundred years in addition to what you have lived already.” He drinks, gives a grunt of satisfaction, and wipes his mouth. “What quantities of brandy I have drunk,” he says, gravely speaking to every one, without addressing any one in particular, “but I have finished now. Thank me, Stepka Doroveitch.”

“There is nothing to thank you for.”

“Ah! you won’t thank me. Then I will tell every one how you have treated me, and, moreover, that you are a blackguard.”

“Then I shall have something to tell you, drunkard that you are,” interrupts Stepka, who at last loses patience. “Listen and pay attention. Let us divide the world in two. You shall take one half, I the other. Then I shall have peace.”

“Then you will not give me back my money?”

“What money do you want, drunkard?”

“My money. It is the sweat of my brow; the labour of my hands. You will be sorry for it in the other world. You will be roasted for those five kopecks.”

“Go to the devil.”

“What are you driving me for? Am I a horse?”

“Be off, be off.”

“Blackguard!”

“Convict!”

And the insults exchanged were worse than they had been before the visit to the drink-seller.

Two friends are seated separately on two camp-bedsteads. One is tall, vigorous, fleshy, with a red face—a regular butcher. He is on the point of weeping; for he has been much moved. The other is tall, thin, conceited, with an immense nose, which always seems to have a cold, and little blue eyes fixed upon the ground. He is a clever, well-bred man, and was formerly a secretary. He treats his friend with a little disdain, which the latter cannot stand. They have been drinking together all day.

“You have taken a liberty with me,” cries the stout one, as with his left hand he shakes the head of his companion. To take a liberty signifies, in convict language, to strike. This convict, formerly a non-commissioned officer, envies in secret the elegance of his neighbour, and endeavours to make up for his material grossness by refined conversation.

“I tell you, you are wrong,” says the secretary, in a dogmatic tone, with his eyes obstinately fixed on the ground, and without looking at his companion.

“You struck me. Do you hear?” continues the other, still shaking his dear friend. “You are the only man in the world I care for; but you shall not take a liberty with me.”

“Confess, my dear fellow,” replies the secretary, “that all this is the result of too much drink.”

The corpulent friend falls back with a stagger, looks stupidly with his drunken eyes at the secretary, and suddenly, with all his might, sends his fist into the secretary’s thin face. Thus terminates the day’s friendship.

The dear friend disappears beneath the camp-bedstead unconscious.

One of my acquaintances enters the barracks. He is a convict of the special section, very good-natured, and gay, far from stupid, and jocular without malice. He is the man who, on my arrival at the convict prison, was looking out for a rich peasant, who spoke so much of his self-respect, and ended by drinking my tea. He was forty years old, had enormous lips, and a fat, fleshy, red nose. He held a balalaika, and struck negligently its strings. He was followed by a little convict, with a large head, whom I knew very little, and to whom no one paid any attention. Now that he was drunk he had attached himself to Vermaloff, and followed him like his shadow, at the same time gesticulating and striking with his fist the wall and the camp-bedsteads. He was almost in tears. Vermaloff did not notice him any more than if he had not existed. The most curious point was that these two men in no way resembled one another, neither by their occupations nor by their disposition. They belonged to different sections, and lived in separate barracks. The little convict was named Bulkin.

Vermaloff smiled when he saw me seated by the stove. He stopped at some distance from me, reflected for a moment, tottered, and then came towards me with an affected swagger. Then he swept the strings of his instrument, and sung, or recited, tapping at the same time with his boot on the ground, the following chant:

My darling!

With her full, fair face,

Sings like a nightingale;

In her satin dress,

With its brilliant trimming,

She is very fair.

This song excited Bulkin in an extraordinary manner. He agitated his arms, and shrieked out to every one: “He lies, my friends; he lies like a quack doctor. There is not a shadow of truth in what he sings.”

“My respects to the venerable Alexander Petrovitch,” said Vermaloff, looking at me with a knowing smile. I fancied even he wished to embrace me. He was drunk. As for the expression, “My respects to the venerable so-and-so,” it is employed by the common people throughout Siberia, even when addressed to a young man of twenty. To call a man old is a sign of respect, and may amount even to flattery.

“Well, Vermaloff, how are you?” I replied.

“So, so. Nothing to boast of. Those who really enjoy the holiday have been drinking since early morning.”

Vermaloff did not speak very distinctly.

“He lies; he lies again,” said Bulkin, striking the camp-bedsteads with a sort of despair.

One might have sworn that Vermaloff had given his word of honour not to pay any attention to him. That was really the most comic thing about it; for Bulkin had not quitted him for one moment since the morning. Always with him, he quarrelled with Vermaloff about every word; wringing his hands, and striking with his fists against the wall and the camp bedsteads till he made them bleed, he suffered visibly from his conviction that Vermaloff “lied like a quack doctor.” If Bulkin had had hair on his head, he would certainly have torn it in his grief, in his profound mortification. One might have thought that he had made himself responsible for Vermaloff’s actions, and that all Vermaloff’s faults troubled his conscience. The amusing part of it was that Vermaloff continued.

“He lies! He lies! He lies!” cried Bulkin.

“What can it matter to you?” replied the convicts, with a laugh.

“I must tell you, Alexander Petrovitch, that I was very good-looking when I was a young man, and the young girls were very fond of me,” said Vermaloff suddenly.

“He lies! He lies!” again interrupted Bulkin, with a groan. The convicts burst into a laugh.

“And well I got myself up to please them. I had a red shirt, and broad trousers of cotton velvet. I was happy in those days. I got up when I liked; did whatever I pleased. In fact——”

“He lies,” declared Bulkin.

“I inherited from my father a stone house, two storeys high. Within two years I made away with the two storeys; nothing remained to me but the street door. Well, what of that. Money comes and goes like a bird.”

“He lies!” declared Bulkin, more resolutely than before.

“Then when I had spent all, I sent a letter to my relations, that they might send me some money. They said that I had set their will at naught, that I was disrespectful. It is now seven years since I sent off my letter.”

“And any answer?” I asked, with a smile.

“No,” he replied, also laughing, and almost putting his nose in my face.

He then informed me that he had a sweetheart.

“You a sweetheart?”

“Onufriel said to me the other day: ‘My young woman is marked with small-pox, and as ugly as you like; but she has plenty of dresses, while yours, though she may be pretty, is a beggar.’”

“Is that true?”

“Certainly, she is a beggar,” he answered.

He burst into a laugh, and the others laughed with him. Every one indeed knew that he had a liaison with a beggar woman, to whom he gave ten kopecks every six months.

“Well, what do you want with me?” I said to him, wishing at last to get rid of him.

He remained silent, and then, looking at me in the most insinuating manner, said:

“Could not you let me have enough money to buy half-a-pint? I have drunk nothing but tea the whole day,” he added, as he took from me the money I offered him; “and tea affects me in such a manner that I am afraid of becoming asthmatic. It gives me the wind.”

When he took the money I offered him, the despair of Bulkin went beyond all bounds. He gesticulated like a man possessed.

“Good people all,” he cried, “the man lies. Everything he says—everything is a lie.”

“What can it matter to you?” cried the convicts, astonished at his goings on. “You are possessed.”

“I will not allow him to lie,” continued Bulkin, rolling his eyes, and striking his fist with energy on the boards. “He shall not lie.”

Every one laughed. Vermaloff bowed to me after receiving the money, and hastened, with many grimaces, to go to the drink-seller. Then only he noticed Bulkin.

“Come!” he said to him, as if the latter were indispensable for the execution of some design. “Idiot!” he added, with contempt, as Bulkin passed before him.

But enough about this tumultuous scene, which, at last, came to an end. The convicts went to sleep heavily on their camp-bedsteads. They spoke and raged during their sleep more than on the other nights. Here and there they still continued to play at cards. The festival looked forward to with such impatience was now over, and tomorrow the daily work, the hard labour, will begin again.

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Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:53