The House of the Dead, by Fyodor Dostoyevsky

Chapter 12.

The Performance.

On the evening of the third day of the holidays took place our first theatrical performance. There had been much trouble about organising it. But those who were to act had taken everything upon themselves, and the other convicts knew nothing about the representation except that it was to take place. We did not even know what was to be played. The actors, while they were at work, were always thinking how they could get together the greatest number of costumes. Whenever I met Baklouchin he snapped his fingers with satisfaction, but told me nothing. I think the Major was in a good humour; but we did not know for certain whether he knew what was going on or not, whether he had authorised it, or whether he had determined to shut his eyes and be silent, after assuring himself that everything would take place quietly. He had heard, I fancy, of the meditated representation, and said nothing about it, lest he should spoil everything. The soldiers would be disorderly, or would get drunk, unless they had something to divert them. Thus I think the Major must have reasoned, for it will be only natural to do so. I may add that if the convicts had not got up a performance during the holidays, or done something of the kind, the administration would have been obliged to organise some sort of amusement; but as our Major was distinguished by ideas directly opposed to those of other people, I take a great responsibility on myself in saying that he knew of our project and authorised it. A man like him must always be crushing and stifling some one, taking something away, depriving some one of a right—in a word, for establishing order of this character he was known throughout the town.

It mattered nothing to him that his exactions made the men rebellious. For such offences there were suitable punishments (there are some people who reason in this way), and with these rascals of convicts there was nothing to do but to treat them very severely, deal with them strictly according to law. These incapable executants of the law did not in the least understand that to apply the law without understanding its spirit is to provoke resistance. They are quite astonished that, in addition to the execution of the law, good sense and a sound head should be expected from them. The last condition would appear to them quite superfluous; to require such a thing is vexatious, intolerant.

However this may be, the Sergeant–Major made no objection to the performance, and that was all the convicts wanted. I may say in all truth that if throughout the holidays there were no disorders in the convict prison, no sanguinary quarrels, no robberies, that must be attributed to the convicts being permitted to organise their performance. I saw with my own eyes how they got out of the way of those of their companions who had drunk too much, and how they prevented quarrels on the ground that the representation would be forbidden. The non-commissioned officer made the prisoners give their word of honour that they would behave well, and that all would go off quietly. They gave it with pleasure, and kept their promise religiously. They were much flattered at finding their word of honour accepted. Let me add that the representation cost nothing, absolutely nothing, to the authorities, who were not called upon to spend a farthing. The theatre could be put up and taken down within a quarter of an hour; and, in case an order stopping the performance suddenly arrived, the scenery could have been put away in a second. The costumes were concealed in the convicts’ boxes; but first of all let me say how our theatre was constructed, what were the costumes, and what the bill, that is to say, the pieces that were to be played. To tell the truth, there was no written playbill, not, at least, for the first representation. It was ready only for the second and third. Baklouchin composed it for the officers and other distinguished visitors who might deign to honour the performance with their presence, including the officer of the guard, the officer of the watch, and an Engineer officer. It was in honour of these that the playbill was written out.

It was supposed that the reputation of our theatre would extend to the fortress, and even to the town, especially as there was no theatre at N——: a few amateur performances, but nothing more. The convicts delighted in the smallest success, and boasted of it like children.

“Who knows?” they said to one another; “when our chiefs hear of it they will perhaps come and see. Then they will know what convicts are worth, for this is not a performance given by soldiers, but a genuine piece played by genuine actors; nothing like it could be seen anywhere in the town. General Abrosimoff had a representation at his house, and it is said he will have another. Well, they may beat us in the matter of costumes, but as for the dialogue that is a very different thing. The Governor himself will perhaps hear of it, and—who knows?—he may come himself.”

They had no theatre in the town. In a word, the imagination of the convicts, above all after their first success, went so far as to make them think that rewards would be distributed to them, and that their period of hard labour would be shortened. A moment afterwards they were the first to laugh at this fancy. In a word, they were children, true children, when they were forty years of age. I knew in a general way the subjects of the pieces that were to be represented, although there was no bill. The title of the first was Philatka and Miroshka Rivals. Baklouchin boasted to me, at least a week before the performance, that the part of Philatka, which he had assigned to himself, would be played in such a manner that nothing like it had ever been seen, even on the St. Petersburg stage. He walked about in the barracks puffed up with boundless importance. If now and then he declaimed a speech from his part in the theatrical style, every one burst out laughing, whether the speech was amusing or not; they laughed because he had forgotten himself. It must be admitted that the convicts, as a body, were self-contained and full of dignity; the only ones who got enthusiastic at Baklouchin’s tirades were the young ones, who had no false shame, or those who were much looked up to, and whose authority was so firmly established that they were not afraid to commit themselves. The others listened silently, without blaming or contradicting, but they did their best to show that the performance left them indifferent.

It was not until the very last moment, the very day of the representation, that every one manifested genuine interest in what our companions had undertaken. “What,” was the general question, “would the Major say? Would the performance succeed as well as the one given two years before?” etc., etc. Baklouchin assured me that all the actors would be quite at home on the stage, and that there would even be a curtain. Sirotkin was to play a woman’s part. “You will see how well I look in women’s clothes,” he said. The Lady Bountiful was to have a dress with skirts and trimmings, besides a parasol; while her husband, the Lord of the Manor, was to wear an officer’s uniform, with epaulettes, and a cane in his hand.

The second piece that was to be played was entitled, Kedril, the Glutton. The title puzzled me much, but it was useless to ask any questions about it. I could only learn that the piece was not printed; it was a manuscript copy obtained from a retired non-commissioned officer in the town, who had doubtless formerly participated in its representation on some military stage. We have, indeed, in the distant towns and governments, a number of pieces of this kind, which, I believe, are perfectly unknown and have never been printed, but which appear to have grown up of themselves, in connection with the popular theatre, in certain zones of Russia. I have spoken of the popular theatre. It would be a good thing if our investigators of popular literature would take the trouble to make careful researches as to this popular theatre which exists, and which, perhaps, is not so insignificant as may be thought.

I cannot think that everything I saw on the stage of our convict prison was the work of our convicts. It must have sprung from old traditions handed down from generation to generation, and preserved among the soldiers, the workmen in industrial towns, and even the shopkeepers in some poor, out-of-the-way places. These traditions have been preserved in some villages and some Government towns by the servants of the large landed proprietors. I even believe that copies of many old pieces have been multiplied by these servants of the nobility.

The old Muscovite proprietors and nobles had their own theatres, in which their servants used to play. Thence comes our popular theatre, the originals of which are beyond discussion. As for Kedril, the Glutton, in spite of my lively curiosity, I could learn nothing about it, except that demons appeared on the stage and carried Kedril away to hell. What did the name of Kedril signify? Why was he called Kedril and not Cyril? Was the name Russian or foreign? I could not resolve this question.

It was announced that the representation would terminate with a musical pantomime. All this promised to be very curious. The actors were fifteen in number, all vivacious men. They were very energetic, got up a number of rehearsals which sometimes took place behind the barracks, kept away from the others, and gave themselves mysterious airs. They evidently wished to surprise us with something extraordinary and unexpected.

On work days the barracks were shut very early as night approached, but an exception was made during the Christmas holidays, when the padlocks were not put to the gates until the evening retreat—nine o’clock. This favour had been granted specially in view of the play. During the whole duration of the holidays a deputation was sent every evening to the officer of the guard very humbly “to permit the representation and not to shut at the usual hour.” It was added that there had been previous representations, and that nothing disorderly had occurred at any of them.

The officer of the guard must have reasoned as follows: There was no disorder, no infraction of discipline at the previous performance, and the moment they give their word that to-night’s performance shall take place in the same manner, they mean to be their own police—the most rigorous police of all. Moreover, he knew well that if he took it upon himself to forbid the representation, these fellows (who knows, and with convicts?) would have committed some offence which would have placed the officer of the guard in a very difficult position. One final reason insured his consent: To mount guard is horribly tiresome, and if he authorised the performance he would see the play acted, not by soldiers, but by convicts, a curious set of people. It would certainly be interesting, and he had a right to be present at it.

In case the superior officer arrived and asked for the officer of the guard, he would be told that the latter had gone to count the convicts and close the barracks; an answer which could easily be made, and which could not be disproved. That is why our superintendents authorised the performance; and throughout the holidays the barracks were kept open each evening until the retreat. The convicts had known beforehand that they would meet with no opposition from the officer of the guard. They were quite quiet about him.

Towards six o’clock Petroff came to look for me, and we went together to the theatre. Nearly all the prisoners of our barracks were there, with the exception of the “old believer” from Tchernigoff, and the Poles. The latter did not decide to be present until the last day of the representation, the 4th of January, after they had been assured that everything would be managed in a becoming manner. The haughtiness of the Poles irritated our convicts. Accordingly they were received on the 4th of January with formal politeness, and conducted to the best places. As for the Circassians and Isaiah Fomitch, the play was for them a genuine delight. Isaiah Fomitch gave three kopecks each time, except the last, when he placed ten kopecks on the plate; and how happy he looked!

The actors had decided that each spectator should give what he thought fit. The receipts were to cover the expenses, and anything beyond was to go to the actors. Petroff assured me that I should be allowed to have one of the best places, however full the theatre might be; first, because being richer than the others, there was a probability of my giving more; and, secondly, because I knew more about acting than any one else. What he had foreseen took place. But let me first describe the theatre.

The barrack of the military section, which had been turned into the theatre, was fifteen feet long. From the court-yard one entered, first an ante-chamber, and afterwards the barrack itself. The building was arranged, as I have already mentioned, in a particular manner, the beds being placed against the wall, so as to leave an open space in the middle. One half of the barrack was reserved for the spectators, while the other, which communicated with the second building, formed the stage. What astonished me directly I entered, was the curtain, which was about ten feet long, and divided the barrack into two. It was indeed a marvel, for it was painted in oil, and represented trees, tunnels, ponds, and stars.

It was made of pieces of linen, old and new, given by the convicts; shirts, the bandages which our peasants wrap round their feet in lieu of socks, all sewn together well or ill, and forming together an immense sheet. Where there was not enough linen, it had been replaced by writing paper, taken sheet by sheet from the various office bureaus. Our painters (among whom we had our Bruloff) had painted it all over, and the effect was very remarkable.

This luxurious curtain delighted the convicts, even the most sombre and most morose. These, however, like the others, as soon as the play began, showed themselves mere children. They were all pleased and satisfied with a certain satisfaction of vanity. The theatre was lighted with candle ends. Two benches, which had been brought from the kitchen, were placed before the curtain, together with three or four large chairs, borrowed from the non-commissioned officers’ room. These chairs were for the officers, should they think fit to honour the performance. As for the benches, they were for the non-commissioned officers, engineers, clerks, directors of the works, and all the immediate superiors of the convicts who had not officer’s rank, and who had come perhaps to take a look at the representation. In fact, there was no lack of visitors. According to the days, they came in greater or smaller numbers, while for the last representation there was not a single place unoccupied on the benches.

At the back the convicts stood crowded together; standing up out of respect to the visitors, and dressed in their vests, or in their short pelisses, in spite of the suffocating heat. As might have been expected, the place was too small; so all the prisoners stood up, heaped together—above all in the last rows. The camp-bedsteads were all occupied; and there were some amateurs who disputed constantly behind the stage in the other barrack, and who viewed the performance from the back. I was asked to go forward, and Petroff with me, close to the benches, whence a good view could be obtained. They looked upon me as a good judge, a connoisseur, who had seen many other theatres. The convicts remarked that Baklouchin had often consulted me, and that he had shown deference to my advice. Consequently they thought that I ought to be treated with honour, and to have one of the best places. These men are vain and frivolous, but only on the surface. They laughed at me when I was at work, because I was a poor workman. Almazoff had a right to despise us gentlemen, and to boast of his superior skill in pounding the alabaster. His laughter and raillery were directed against our origin, for we belonged by birth to the caste of his former masters, of whom he could not preserve a good recollection; but here at the theatre these same men made way for me; for they knew that about this matter I knew more than they did. Those, even, who were not at all well disposed towards me, were glad to hear me praise the performance, and gave way to me without the least servility. I judged now by my impressions of that time. I understood that in this new view of theirs there was no lowering of themselves; rather a sentiment of their own dignity.

The most striking characteristic of our people is its conscientiousness, and its love of justice; no false vanity, no sly ambition to reach the first rank without being entitled to do so; such faults are foreign to our people. Take it from its rough shell, and you will perceive, if you study it without prejudice, attentively, and close at hand, qualities which you would never have suspected. Our sages have very little to teach our people. I will even say more; they might take lessons from it.

Petroff had told me innocently, on taking me into the theatre, that they would pass me to the front, because they expected more money from me. There were no fixed prices for the places. Each one gave what he liked, and what he could. Nearly every one placed a piece of money in the plate when it was handed round. Even if they had passed me forward in the hope that I should give more than others, was there not in that a certain feeling of personal dignity?

“You are richer than I am. Go to the first row. We are all equal here, it is true; but you pay more, and the actors prefer a spectator like you. Occupy the first place then, for we are not here with money, and must arrange ourselves anyhow.”

What noble pride in this mode of action! In final analysis not love of money, but self-respect. There was little esteem for money among us. I do not remember that one of us ever lowered himself to obtain money. Some men used to make up to me, but from love of cunning and of fun rather than in the hope of obtaining any benefit. I do not know whether I explain myself clearly. I am, in any case, forgetting the performance. Let me return to it.

Before the rise of the curtain, the room presented a strange and animated look. In the first place, the crowd pressed, crushed, jammed together on all sides, but impatient, full of expectation, every face glowing with delight. In the last ranks was the grovelling, confused mass of convicts. Many of them had brought with them logs of wood, which they placed against the wall, on which they climbed up. In this fatiguing position they paused to rest themselves by placing both hands on the shoulders of their companions, who seemed quite at ease. Others stood on their toes, with their heels against the stove, and thus remained throughout the representation, supported by those around them. Massed against the camp-bedsteads was another compact crowd; for here were some of the best places of all. Five convicts had hoisted themselves up to the top of the stove, whence they had a commanding view. These fortunate ones were extremely happy. Elsewhere swarmed the late arrivals, unable to find good places.

Every one conducted himself in a becoming manner, without making any noise. Each one wished to show advantageously before the distinguished persons who were visiting us. Simple and natural was the expression of these red faces, damp with perspiration, as the rise of the curtain was eagerly expected. What a strange look of infinite delight, of unmixed pleasure, was painted on these scarred faces, these branded foreheads, so dark and menacing at ordinary times! They were all without their caps, and as I looked back at them from my place, it seemed to me that their heads were entirely shaved.

Suddenly the signal is given, and the orchestra begins to play. This orchestra deserves a special mention. It consisted of eight musicians: two violins, one of which was the property of a convict, while the other had been borrowed from outside; three balalaiki, made by the convicts themselves; two guitars, and a tambourine. The violins sighed and shrieked, and the guitars were worthless, but the balalaiki were remarkably good; and the agile fingering of the artists would have done honour to the cleverest executant.

They played scarcely anything but dance tunes. At the most exciting passages they struck with their fingers on the body of their instruments. The tone, the execution of the motive, were always original and distinctive. One of the guitarists knew his instrument thoroughly. It was the gentleman who had killed his father. As for the tambourinist, he really did wonders. Now he whirled round the disk, balanced on one of his fingers; now he rubbed the parchment with his thumb, and brought from it a countless multitude of notes, now dull, now brilliant.

At last two harmonigers join the orchestra. I had no idea until then of all that could be done with these popular and vulgar instruments. I was astonished. The harmony, but, above all, the expression, the very conception of the motive, were admirably rendered. I then understood perfectly, and for the first time, the remarkable boldness, the striking abandonment, which are expressed in our popular dance tunes, and our village songs.

At last the curtain rose. Every one made a movement. Those who were at the back raised themselves upon the point of their feet; some one fell down from his log. At once there were looks that enjoined silence. The performance now began.

I was seated not far from Ali, who was in the midst of the group formed by his brothers and the other Circassians. They had a passionate love of the theatre, and did not miss one of our evenings. I have remarked that all the Mohammedans, Circassians, and so on, are fond of all kinds of representations. Near them was Isaiah Fomitch, quite in a state of ecstasy. As soon as the curtain rose he was all ears and eyes; his countenance expressed an expectation of something marvellous. I should have been grieved had he been disappointed. The charming face of Ali shone with a childish joy, so pure that I was quite happy to behold it. Involuntarily, whenever a general laugh echoed an amusing remark, I turned towards him to see his countenance. He did not notice it, he had something else to do.

Near him, placed on the left, was a convict, already old, sombre, discontented, and always grumbling. He also had noticed Ali, and I saw him cast furtive glances more than once towards him, so charming was the young Circassian. The prisoners always called him Ali Simeonitch, without my knowing why.

In the first piece, Philatka and Miroshka, Baklouchin, in the part of Philatka, was really marvellous. He played his rôle to perfection. It could be seen that he had weighed each speech, each movement. He managed to give to each word, each gesture, a meaning which responded perfectly to the character of the personage. Apart from the conscientious study he had made of the character, he was gay, simple, natural, irresistible. If you had seen Baklouchin you would certainly have said that he was a genuine actor, an actor by vocation, and of great talent. I have seen Philatka several times at the St. Petersburg and Moscow theatres, and I declare that none of our celebrated actors was equal to Baklouchin in this part. They were peasants, from no matter what country, and not true Russian moujiks. Moreover, their desire to be peasant-like was too apparent. Baklouchin was animated by emulation; for it was known that the convict Potsiakin was to play the part of Kedril in the second piece, and it was assumed—I do not know why—that the latter would show more talent than Baklouchin. The latter was as vexed by this preference as a child. How many times did he not come to me during the last days to tell me all he felt! Two hours before the representation he was attacked by fever. When the audience burst out laughing, and called out “Bravo, Baklouchin! what a fellow you are!” his figure shone with joy, and true inspiration could be read in his eyes. The scene of the kisses between Kiroshka and Philatka, in which the latter calls out to the daughter, “Wife, your mouth,” and then wipes his own, was wonderfully comic. Every one burst out laughing.

What interested me was the spectators. They were all at their ease, and gave themselves up frankly to their mirth. Cries of approbation became more and more numerous. A convict nudged his companion with his elbow, and hastily communicated his impressions, without even troubling himself to know who was by his side. When a comic song began, one man might be seen agitating his arms violently, as if to engage his companions to laugh; after which he turned suddenly towards the stage. A third smacked his tongue against his palate, and could not keep quiet a moment; but as there was not room for him to change his position, he hopped first on one leg, then on the other; towards the end of the piece the general gaiety attained its climax. I exaggerate nothing. Imagine the convict prison, chains, captivity, long years of confinement, of task-work, of monotonous life, falling away drop by drop like rain on an autumn day; imagine all this despair in presence of permission given to the convicts to amuse themselves, to breathe freely for an hour, to forget their nightmare, and to organise a play—and what a play! one that excited the envy and admiration of our town.

“Fancy those convicts!” people said: everything interested them, take the costumes for instance. It seemed very strange, but then to see, Nietsvitaeff, or Baklouchin, in a different costume from the one they had worn for so many years.

He is a convict, a genuine convict, whose chains ring when he walks; and there he is, out on the stage with a frock-coat, and a round hat, and a cloak, like any ordinary civilian. He has put on hair, moustaches. He takes a red handkerchief from his pocket and shakes it, like a real nobleman. What enthusiasm is created! The “good landlord” arrives in an aide-decamp uniform, a very old one, it is true, but with epaulettes, and a cocked hat. The effect produced was indescribable. There had been two candidates for this costume, and—will it be believed?—they had quarrelled like two little schoolboys as to which of them should play the part. Both wanted to appear in military uniform with epaulettes. The other actors separated them, and, by a majority of voices, the part was entrusted to Nietsvitaeff; not because he was more suited to it than the other, and that he bore a greater resemblance to a nobleman, but only because he had assured them all that he would have a cane, and that he would twirl it and rap it out grand, like a true nobleman—a dandy of the latest fashion—which was more than Vanka and Ospiety could do, seeing they have never known any noblemen. In fact, when Nietsvitaeff went to the stage with his wife, he did nothing but draw circles on the floor with his light bamboo cane, evidently thinking that this was the sign of the best breeding, of supreme elegance. Probably in his childhood, when he was still a barefooted child, he had been attracted by the skill of some proprietor in twirling his cane, and this impression had remained in his memory, although thirty years afterwards.

Nietsvitaeff was so occupied with his process that he saw no one, he gave the replies in his dialogue without even raising his eyes. The most important thing for him was the end of his cane, and the circles he drew with it. The Lady Bountiful was also very remarkable; she came on in an old worn-out muslin dress, which looked like a rag. Her arms and neck were bare. She had a little calico cap on her head, with strings under her chin, an umbrella in one hand, and in the other a fan of coloured paper, with which she constantly fanned herself. This great lady was welcomed with a wild laugh; she herself, too, was unable to restrain herself, and burst out more than once. The part was filled by the convict Ivanoff. As for Sirotkin, in his girl’s dress, he looked exceedingly well. The couplets were all well sung. In a word, the piece was played to the satisfaction of every one; not the least hostile criticism was passed—who, indeed, was there to criticise? The air, “Sieni moi Sieni,” was played again by way of overture, and the curtain again went up.

Kedril, the Glutton, was now to be played. Kedril is a sort of Don Juan. This comparison may justly be made, for the master and the servant are both carried away by devils at the end of the piece; and the piece, as the convicts had it, was played quite correctly; but the beginning and the end must have been lost, for it had neither head nor tail. The scene is laid in an inn somewhere in Russia. The innkeeper introduces into a room a nobleman wearing a cloak and a battered round hat; the valet, Kedril, follows his master; he carries a valise, and a fowl rolled up in blue paper; he wears a short pelisse and a footman’s cap. It is this fellow who is the glutton. The convict Potsiakin, the rival of Baklouchin, played this part, while the part of the nobleman was filled by Ivanoff, the same who played the great lady in the first piece. The innkeeper (Nietsvitaeff) warns the nobleman that the room is haunted by demons, and goes away; the nobleman is interested and preoccupied; he murmurs aloud that he has known that for a long time, and orders Kedril to unpack his things and to get supper ready.

Kedril is a glutton and a coward. When he hears of devils he turns pale and trembles like a leaf; he would like to run away, but is afraid of his master; besides, he is hungry, he is voluptuous, he is sensual, stupid, though cunning in his way, and, as before said, a poltroon; he cheats his master every moment, though he fears him like fire. This type of servant is a remarkable one in which may be recognised the principal features of the character of Leporello, but indistinct and confused. The part was played in really superior style by Potsiakin, whose talent was beyond discussion, surpassing as it did in my opinion that of Baklouchin himself. But when the next day I spoke to Baklouchin I concealed my impression from him, knowing that it would give him bitter pain.

As for the convict who played the part of the nobleman, it was not bad. Everything he said was without meaning, incomparable to anything I had ever heard before; but his enunciation was pure and his gestures becoming. While Kedril occupies himself with the valise, his master walks up and down, and announces that from that day forth he means to lead a quiet life. Kedril listens, makes grimaces, and amuses the spectators by his reflections “aside.” He has no pity for his master, but he has heard of devils, would like to know what they are like, and thereupon questions him. The nobleman replies that some time ago, being in danger of death, he asked succour from hell. Then the devils aided and delivered him, but the term of his liberty has expired; and if the devils come that evening, it will be to exact his soul, as has been agreed in their compact. Kedril begins to tremble in earnest, but his master does not lose courage, and orders him to prepare the supper. Hearing of victuals, Kedril revives. Taking out a bottle of wine, he taps it on his own account. The audience expands with laughter; but the door grates on its hinges, the winds shakes the shutters, Kedril trembles, and hastily, almost without knowing what he is doing, puts into his mouth an enormous piece of fowl, which he is unable to swallow. There is another gust of wind.

“Is it ready?” cries the master, still walking backwards and forwards in his room.

“Directly, sir. I am preparing it,” says Kedril, who sits down, and, taking care that his master does not see him, begins to eat the supper himself. The audience is evidently charmed with the cunning of the servant, who so cleverly makes game of the nobleman; and it must be admitted that Poseikin, the representative of the part, deserved high praise. He pronounced admirably the words: “Directly, sir. I—am—preparing—it.”

Kedril eats gradually, and at each mouthful trembles lest his master shall see him. Every time that the nobleman turns round Kedril hides under the table, holding the fowl in his hand. When he has appeased his hunger, he begins to think of his master.

“Kedril, will it soon be ready?” cries the nobleman.

“It is ready now,” replies Kedril boldly, when all at once he perceives that there is scarcely anything left. Nothing remains but one leg. The master, still sombre and preoccupied, notices nothing, and takes his seat, while Kedril places himself behind him with a napkin on his arm. Every word, every gesture, every grimace from the servant, as he turns towards the audience to laugh at his master’s expense, excites the greatest mirth among the convicts. Just at the moment when the young nobleman begins to eat, the devils arrive. They resemble nothing human or terrestrial. The side-door opens, and the phantom appears dressed entirely in white, with a lighted lantern in lieu of a head, and with a scythe in its hand. Why the white dress, scythe, and lantern? No one could tell me, and the matter did not trouble the convicts. They were sure that this was the way it ought to be done. The master comes forward courageously to meet the apparitions, and calls out to them that he is ready, and that they can take him. But Kedril, as timid as a hare, hides under the table, not forgetting, in spite of his fright, to take a bottle with him. The devils disappear, Kedril comes out of his hiding-place, and the master begins to eat his fowl. Three devils enter the room, and seize him to take him to hell.

“Save me, Kedril,” he cries. But Kedril has something else to think of. He has now with him in his hiding-place not only the bottle, but also the plate of fowl and the bread. He is now alone. The demons are far away, and his master also. Kedril gets from under the table, looks all round, and suddenly his face beams with joy. He winks, like the rogue he is, sits down in his master’s place, and whispers to the audience: “I have now no master but myself.”

Every one laughs at seeing him masterless; and he says, always in an under-tone and with a confidential air: “The devils have carried him off!”

The enthusiasm of the spectators is now without limits. The last phrase was uttered with such roguery, with such a triumphant grimace, that it was impossible not to applaud. But Kedril’s happiness does not last long. Hardly has he taken up the bottle of wine, and poured himself out a large glass, which he carries to his lips, than the devils return, slip behind, and seize him. Kedril howls like one possessed, but he dare not turn round. He wishes to defend himself, but cannot, for in his hands he holds the bottle and the glass, from which he will not separate. His eyes starting from his head, his mouth gaping with horror, he remains for a moment looking at the audience with a comic expression of cowardice that might have been painted. At last he is dragged, carried away. His arms and legs are agitated in every direction, but he still sticks to his bottle. He also shrieks, and his cries are still heard when he has been carried from the stage.

The curtain falls amid general laughter, and every one is delighted. The orchestra now attacks the famous dance tune Kamarinskaia. First it is played softly, pianissimo; but little by little, the motive is developed and played more lightly. The time is quickened, and the wood, as well as the strings of the balalaiki, is made to sound. The musicians enter thoroughly into the spirit of the dance. Glinka [who has arranged the Kamarinskaia in the most ingenious manner, and with harmonies of his own devising, for full orchestra] should have heard it as it was executed in our Convict Prison.

The pantomimic musical accompaniment is begun; and throughout the Kamarinskaia is played. The stage represents the interior of a hut. A miller and his wife are sitting down, one mending clothes, the other spinning flax. Sirotkin plays the part of the wife, and Nietsvitaeff that of the husband. Our scenery was very poor. In this piece, as in the preceding ones, imagination had to supply what was wanting in reality. Instead of a wall at the back of the stage, there was a carpet or a blanket; on the right, shabby screens; while on the left, where the stage was not closed, the camp-bedsteads could be seen; but the spectators were not exacting, and were willing to imagine all that was wanting. It was an easy task for them; all convicts are great dreamers. Directly they are told “this is a garden,” it is for them a garden. Informed that “this is a hut,” they accept the definition without difficulty. To them it is a hut. Sirotkin was charming in a woman’s dress. The miller finishes his work, takes his cap and his whip, goes up to his wife, and gives her to understand by signs, that if during his absence she makes the mistake of receiving any one, she will have to deal with him—and he shows her his whip. The wife listens, and nods affirmatively her head. The whip is evidently known to her; the hussey has often deserved it. The husband goes out. Hardly has he turned upon his heel, than his wife shakes her fist at him. There is a knock; the door opens, and in comes a neighbour, miller also by trade. He wears a beard, is in a kuftan, and he brings as a present a red handkerchief. The woman smiles. Another knock is heard at the door. Where shall she hide him? She conceals him under the table, and takes up her distaff again. Another admirer now presents himself—a farrier in the uniform of a non-commissioned officer.

Until now the pantomime had gone on capitally; the gestures of the actors being irreproachable. It was astounding to see these improvised players going through their parts in so correct a manner; and involuntarily one said to oneself:

“What a deal of talent is lost in our Russia, left without use in our prisons and places of exile!”

The convict who played the part of the farrier had, doubtless, taken part in a performance at some provincial theatre, or had played with amateurs. It seemed to me, in any case, that our actors knew nothing of acting as an art, and bore themselves in the meanest manner. When it was his turn to appear, he came on like one of the classical heroes of the old repertory—taking a long stride with one foot before he raised the other from the ground, throwing back his head on the upper part of his body and casting proud looks around him. If such a gait was ridiculous on the part of classical heroes, still more so was it when the actor was representing a comic character. But the audience thought it quite natural, and accepted the actor’s triumphant walk as a necessary fact, without criticising it.

A moment after the entry of the second admirer there is another knock at the door. The wife loses her head. Where is the farrier to be concealed? In her big box. It fortunately is open. The farrier disappears within it and the lid falls upon him.

The new arrival is a Brahmin, in full costume. His entry is hailed by the spectators with a formidable laugh. This Brahmin is represented by the convict Cutchin, who plays the part perfectly, thanks, in a great measure, to a suitable physiognomy. He explains in the pantomime his love of the miller’s wife, raises his hands to heaven, and then clasps them on his breast.

There is now another knock at the door—a vigorous one this time. There could be no mistake about it. It is the master of the house. The miller’s wife loses her head; the Brahmin runs wildly on all sides, begging to be concealed. She helps him to slip behind the cupboard, and begins to spin, and goes on spinning without thinking of opening the door. In her fright she gets the thread twisted, drops the spindle, and, in her agitation, makes the gesture of turning it when it is lying on the ground. Sirotkin represented perfectly this state of alarm.

Then the miller kicks open the door and approaches his wife, whip in hand. He has seen everything, for he was spying outside; and he indicates by signs to his wife that she has three lovers concealed in the house. Then he searches them out.

First, he finds the neighbour, whom he drives out with his fist. The frightened farrier tries to escape. He raises, with his head, the cover of the chest, and is at once seen. The miller thrashes him with his whip, and for once this gallant does not march in the classical style.

The only one now remaining is the Brahmin, whom the husband seeks for some time without finding him. At last he discovers him in his corner behind the cupboard, bows to him politely, and then draws him by his beard into the middle of the stage. The Brahmin tries to defend himself, and cries out, “Accursed, accursed!”—the only words pronounced throughout the pantomime. But the husband will not listen to him, and, after settling accounts with him, turns to his wife. Seeing that her turn has come, she throws away both wheel and spindle, and runs out, causing an earthen pot to fall as she shakes the room in her fright. The convicts burst into a laugh, and Ali, without looking at me, takes my hand, and calls out, “See, see the Brahmin!” He cannot hold himself upright, so overpowering is his laugh. The curtain falls, and another song begins.

There were two or three more, all broadly humorous and very droll. The convicts had not composed them themselves, but they had contributed something to them. Every actor improvised to such purpose that the part was a different one each evening. The pantomime ended with a ballet, in which there was a burial. The Brahmin went through various incantations over the corpse, and with effect. The dead man returns to life, and, in their joy, all present begin to dance. The Brahmin dances in Brahminical style with the dead man. This was the final scene. The convicts now separated, happy, delighted, and full of praise for the actors and gratitude towards the non-commissioned officers. There was not the least quarrel, and they all went to bed with peaceful hearts, to sleep with a sleep by no means familiar to them.

This is no fantasy of my imagination, but the truth, the very truth. These unhappy men had been permitted to live for some moments in their own way, to amuse themselves in a human manner, to escape for a brief hour from their sad position as convicts; and a moral change was effected, at least for a time.

The night is already quite dark. Something makes me shudder, and I awake. The “old believer” is still on the top of the high porcelain stove praying, and he will continue to pray until dawn. Ali is sleeping peacefully by my side. I remember that when he went to bed he was still laughing and talking about the theatre with his brothers. Little by little I began to remember everything; the preceding day, the Christmas holidays, and the whole month. I raised my head in fright and looked at my companions, who were sleeping by the trembling light of the candle provided by the authorities. I look at their unhappy countenances, their miserable beds; I view this nakedness, the wretchedness, and then convince myself that it is not a frightful night there, but a simple reality. Yes, it is a reality. I hear a groan. Some one has moved his arm and made his chains rattle. Another one is agitated in his dreams and speaks aloud, while the old grandfather is praying for the “Orthodox Christians.” I listened to his prayer, uttered with regularity, in soft, rather drawling tones: “Lord Jesus Christ have mercy upon us.”

“Well, I am not here for ever, but only for a few years,” I said to myself, and I again laid my head down on my pillow.

https://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/d/dostoyevsky/house-of-the-dead/part1.12.html

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