The House of the Dead, by Fyodor Dostoyevsky

Part 2.

Chapter 1.

The Hospital

Shortly after the Christmas holidays I felt ill, and had to go to our military hospital, which stood apart at about half a verst (one-third of a mile) from the fortress. It was a one-storey building, very long, and painted yellow. Every summer a great quantity of ochre was expended in brightening it up. In the immense court-yard stood buildings, including those where the chief physicians lived, while the principal building contained only wards intended for the patients. There were a good many of them, but as only two were reserved for the convicts, these latter were nearly always full, above all in summer, so that it was often necessary to bring the beds closer together. These wards were occupied by “unfortunates” of all kinds: first by our own, then by military prisoners, previously incarcerated in the guard-houses. There were others, again, who had not yet been tried, or who were passing through. In this hospital, too, were invalids from the Disciplinary Company, a melancholy institution for bringing together soldiers of bad conduct, with a view to their correction. At the end of a year or two, they come back the most thorough-going rascals that the earth can endure.

When a convict felt that he was ill, he told the non-commissioned officer, who wrote the man’s name down on a card, which he then gave to him and sent him to the hospital under the escort of a soldier. On his arrival he was examined by a doctor, who authorised the convict to remain at the hospital if he was really ill. My name was duly written down, and towards one o’clock, when all my companions had started for their afternoon work, I went to the hospital. Every prisoner took with him such money and bread as he could (for food was not to be expected the first day), a little pipe, and pouch containing tobacco, with flint, steel, and match-paper. The convicts concealed these objects in their boots. On entering the hospital I experienced a feeling of curiosity, for a new aspect of life was now presented.

The day was hot, cloudy, sad—one of those days when places like a hospital assume a particularly disagreeable and repulsive look. Myself and the soldier escorting me went into the entrance room, where there were two copper baths. There were two convicts waiting there with their warders. An assistant surgeon came in, looked at us with a careless and patronising air, and went away still more carelessly to announce our arrival to the physician on duty. Soon the physician arrived. He examined me, treating me in a very affable manner, and gave me a paper on which my name was inscribed. The ordinary physician of the wards reserved for the convicts was to make the diagnosis of my illness, to prescribe the fitting remedies, together with the necessary diet. I had already heard the convicts say that their doctors could not be too much praised. “They are fathers to us,” they would say.

I took my clothes off to put on another costume. Our clothes and linen were taken away, and we were given hospital linen instead, to which were added long stockings, slippers, cotton nightcaps, and a dressing-gown of a very thick brown cloth, which was lined, not with linen, but with filth. The dressing-gown was indeed very filthy, but I soon understood its utility. We were afterwards taken to the convict wards, which were at the head of a long corridor, very high, and very clean. The external cleanliness was quite satisfactory. Everything that could be seen shone; so, at least, it seemed to me, after the dirtiness of the convict prison.

The two prisoners, whom I had found in the entrance hall, went to the left of the corridor, while I entered a room. Before the padlocked door walked a sentinel, musket on shoulder; and not far off was the soldier who was to replace him. The sergeant of the hospital guard ordered him to let me pass, and suddenly I found myself in the middle of a long narrow room, with beds to the number of twenty-two arranged against the walls. Three or four of them were still unoccupied. These wooden beds were painted green, and, as is notoriously the case with all hospital beds in Russia, were doubtless inhabited by bugs. I went into a corner by the side of the windows. There were very few prisoners dangerously ill and confined to their beds.

The inmates of the hospital were, for the most part, convalescents, or men who were slightly indisposed. My new companions were stretched out on their couches, or walking about up and down between the rows of beds. There was just space enough for them to come and go. The atmosphere of the ward was stifling with the odour peculiar to hospitals. It was composed of various emanations, each more disagreeable than the other, and of the smell of drugs; though the stove was kept well heated all day long, my bed was covered with a counterpane, which I took off. The bed itself consisted of a cloth blanket lined with linen, and coarse sheets of more than doubtful cleanliness. By the side of the bed was a little table with a pitcher and a pewter mug, together with a diminutive napkin, which had been given to me. The table could, moreover, hold a tea-urn for those patients who were rich enough to drink tea. These men of means, however, were not very numerous. The pipes and the tobacco pouches—for all the patients smoked, even the consumptive ones—could be concealed beneath the mattress. The doctors and the other officials scarcely ever made searches, and when they surprised a patient with a pipe in his mouth, they pretended not to see. The patients, however, were very prudent, and smoked always at the back of the stove. They never smoked in their beds except at night, when no rounds were made by the officers commanding the hospital.

Until then I had not been in any hospital in the character of patient, so that everything was quite new to me. I noticed that my entry had mystified some of the prisoners. They had heard of me, and all the inmates now looked upon me with that slight shade of superiority which recognised members of no matter what society show to one newly admitted among them. On my right was lying down a man committed for trial—an exsecretary and the illegitimate son of a retired captain—accused of having made false money. He had been in the hospital nearly a year. He was not in the least ill, but he assured the doctors that he had an aneurism, and he so thoroughly convinced them that he escaped both the hard labour and the corporal punishment to which he had been sentenced. He was sent a year later to T——k, where he was attached to an asylum. He was a vigorous young fellow of eight-and-twenty, cunning, a self-confessed rogue, and something of a lawyer. He was intelligent, had easy manners, but was very presumptuous, and suffered from morbid self-esteem. Convinced that there was no one in the world a bit more honest or more just than himself, he did not consider himself at all guilty, and never kept this assurance to himself.

This personage was the first to address me, and he questioned me with much curiosity. He initiated me into the ways of the hospital; and, of course, began by telling me that he was the son of a captain. He was very anxious that I should take him for a noble, or at least, for some one connected with the nobility.

Soon afterwards an invalid from the Disciplinary Company came and told me that he knew a great many nobles who had been exiled; and, to convince me, he repeated to me their christian names and their patronymics. It was only necessary to see the face of this soldier to understand that he was lying abominably. He was named Tchekounoff, and came to pay court to me, because he suspected me of having money. When he saw a packet of tea and sugar, he at once offered me his services to make the water boil and to get me a tea-urn. M. D. S. K—— had promised to send me my own by one of the prisoners who worked in the hospital, but Tchekounoff arranged to get me one forthwith. He got me a tin vessel, in which he made the water boil; and, in a word, he showed such extraordinary zeal, that it drew down upon him bitter laughter from one of the patients, a consumptive man, whose bed was just opposite mine, Usteantseff by name. This was the soldier condemned to the rods, who, from fear, had swallowed a bottle of vodka, in which he had infused tobacco, this bringing on lung disease.

I have spoken of him above. He had remained silent until now, stretched out on his bed, and breathing with difficulty. He looked at me all the time with a very serious air. He did not take his eyes from Tchekounoff, whose civility irritated him. His extraordinary gravity rendered his indignation comic. At last he could stand it no longer.

“Look at this fellow! He has found his master,” he said, stammering out the words with a voice strangled by weakness, for he had now not long to live.

Tchekounoff, much annoyed, turned round.

“Who is the fellow?” he asked, looking at Usteantseff, with contempt.

“Why, you are a flunkey,” replied Usteantseff, as confidently as if he had possessed the right of calling Tchekounoff to order.

“I a fellow?”

“Yes, you are a flunkey; a true flunkey. Listen, my good friends. He won’t believe me. He is quite astonished, the brave fellow.”

“What can that matter to you? You see when they don’t know how to make use of their hands that they are not accustomed to be without servants. Why should I not serve him, buffoon with a hairy snout?”

“Who has a hairy snout?”


“I have a hairy snout?”

“Yes; certainly you have.”

“You are a nice fellow, you are. If I have a hairy snout, you have a face like a crow’s egg.”

“Hairy snout! The merciful Lord has settled your account. You would do much better to keep quiet and die.”

“Why? I would rather prostrate myself before a boot than before a slipper. My father never prostrated himself, and never made me do so.”

He would have continued, but an attack of coughing convulsed him for some minutes. He spat blood, and a cold sweat broke out on his low forehead. If his cough had not prevented him from speaking, he would have continued to declaim. One could see that from his look; but in his powerlessness he could only move his hand, the result of which was that Tchekounoff spoke no more about the matter.

I quite understood that the consumptive patient hated me much more than Tchekounoff. No one would have thought of being angry with him or of looking down upon him by reason of the services he was rendering me, and the few kopecks that he tried to get from me. Every one understood that he did it all in order to get himself a little money.

The Russian people are not at all susceptible on such points, and know perfectly well how to take them.

I had displeased Usteantseff, as my tea had also displeased him. What irritated him was that, in spite of all, I was a gentleman, even with my chains; that I could not do without a servant, though I neither asked for nor desired one. In reality I tried to do everything for myself, in order not to appear a white-handed, effeminate person, and not to play the part which excited so much envy.

I even felt a little pride on this point; but, in spite of every thing—I do not know why—I was always surrounded by officious, complaisant people, who attached themselves to me of their own free will, and who ended by governing me. It was I rather who was their servant; so that, whether I liked it or not, I was made to appear to every one a noble, who could not do without the services of others, and who gave himself airs. This exasperated me.

Usteantseff was consumptive, and, therefore, irascible. The other patients only showed me indifference, tinged with a shade of contempt. They were occupied with a circumstance which now presents itself to my memory.

I learned, as I listened to their conversation, that there was to be brought into the hospital that evening a convict who, at that moment, was receiving the rods. The prisoners were looking forward to this new arrival with some curiosity. They said, however, that his punishment was but slight—only five hundred strokes.

I looked round. The greater number of genuine patients were, as far as I could observe, affected by scurvy and diseases of the eyes—both peculiar to this country. The others suffered from fever, lung disease, and other illnesses. The different illnesses were not separated; all the patients were together in the same room.

I have spoken of genuine patients, for certain convicts had come in merely to get a little rest. The doctors admitted them from pure compassion, above all, if there were any vacant beds. Life in the guard-house and in the prison was so hard compared with that of the hospital, that many persons preferred to remain lying down in spite of the stifling atmosphere and the rules against leaving the room.

There were even men who took pleasure in this kind of life. They belonged nearly all to the Disciplinary Company. I examined my new companions with curiosity. One of them puzzled me very much. He was consumptive, and was dying. His bed was a little further on than that of Usteantseff, and was nearly beside mine. He was named Mikhailoff. I had seen him in the Convict Prison two weeks before, when he was already seriously ill. He ought to have been under treatment long before, but he bore up against his malady with surprising courage. He did not go to the hospital until about the Christmas holidays, to die three weeks afterwards of galloping consumption. He seemed to have burned out like a candle. What astonished me most was the terrible change in his countenance. I had noticed him the very first day of my imprisonment. By his side was lying a soldier of the Disciplinary Company—an old man with a bad expression on his face, whose general appearance was disgusting.

But I am not going to enumerate all the patients. I just remember this old man simply because he made an impression on me, and initiated me at once into certain peculiarities of the ward. He had a severe cold in the head, which made him sneeze at every moment, even during his sleep, as if firing salutes, five or six times running, while each time he called out, “My God, what torture!”

Seated on his bed he stuffed his nose eagerly with snuff, which he took from a paper bag, in order to sneeze more strongly, and with greater regularity. He sneezed into a checked cotton pocket-handkerchief which belonged to him, and which had lost its colour through perpetual washing. His little nose then became wrinkled in a most peculiar manner with a multitude of wrinkles, and his open mouth exhibited broken teeth, decayed and black, and red gums moist with saliva. When he sneezed into his handkerchief he unfolded it and wiped it on the lining of his dressing-gown. His proceedings disgusted me so much that involuntarily I examined the dressing-gown I had just put on myself. It exhaled a most offensive odour, which contact with my body helped to bring out. It smelt of plasters and medicaments of all kinds. It seemed as though it had been worn by patients from time immemorial. The lining had, perhaps, been washed once, but I would not swear to it. Certainly, at the time I put it on, it was saturated with lotions, and stained by contact with poultices and plasters of all imaginable kinds.

The men condemned to the rods, having undergone their punishment, were brought straight to the hospital, their backs still bleeding. As compresses and as poultices were placed on their wounds, the dressing-gown they wore over their wet shirt received and retained the droppings.

During all the time of my hard labour I had to go to the hospital, which often happened, I always put on, with mistrust and abhorrence, the dressing-gown that was delivered to me. As soon as Tchekounoff had given me my tea (I will say, in parenthesis, that the water brought in in the morning, and not renewed throughout the day, was soon corrupted, soon poisoned by the fetid air), the door opened, and the soldier, who had just received the rods, was brought in under a double escort. I saw, for the first time, a man who had just been whipped. Later on many were brought in, and whenever this happened it caused great distress to the patients. These unfortunate men were received with grave composure, but the nature of the reception depended nearly always on the enormity of the crime committed, and, consequently, the number of strokes administered.

The criminals most cruelly whipped, and who were celebrated as brigands of the first order, enjoyed more respect and attention than a simple deserter, a recruit, like the one who had just been brought in. But in neither case was any particular sympathy manifested, nor were any annoying remarks made. The unhappy man was attended to in silence, above all if he was incapable of attending to himself. The assistant-surgeons knew that they were entrusting their patients to skilful and experienced hands. The usual treatment consisted in applying very often to the back of the man who had been whipped a shirt or a piece of linen steeped in cold water. It was also necessary to withdraw skilfully from the wounds the twigs left by the rods which had been broken on the criminal’s back. This last operation was particularly painful to the patients. The extraordinary stoicism with which they supported their sufferings astonished me greatly.

I have seen many convicts who had been whipped, and cruelly, I can tell you. Well, I do not remember one of them uttering a groan. Only after such an experience, the countenance becomes pale, decomposed, the eyes glitter, the look wanders, and the lips tremble so that the patient sometimes bites them till they bleed.

The soldier who had just come in was twenty-three years of age; he had a good muscular development, and was rather a fine man, tall, well-made, with a bronzed skin. His back, uncovered down to the waist, had been seriously beaten, and his body now trembled with fever beneath the damp sheet with which his back was covered. For about an hour and a half he did nothing but walk backwards and forwards in the room. I looked at his face: he seemed to be thinking of nothing; his eyes had a strange expression, at once wild and timid; they seemed to fix themselves with difficulty on the various objects. I fancied I saw him looking attentively at my hot tea; the steam was rising from the full cup, and the poor devil was shivering and clattering his teeth. I invited him to have some; he turned towards me without saying a word, and taking up the cup, swallowed the tea at one gulp, without putting sugar in it. He tried not to look at me, and when he had finished he put the cup back in silence without making a sign, and then began to walk up and down as before. He was in too much pain to think of speaking to me or thanking me. As for the other prisoners, they abstained from questioning him; when once they had applied compresses they paid no more attention to him, thinking probably it would be better to leave him alone, and not to worry him by their questions and compassion. The soldier seemed quite satisfied with this view.

Meanwhile, night came on and the lamp was lighted; some of the patients possessed candlesticks of their own, but these were not numerous. In the evening the doctor came round, after which a non-commissioned officer on guard counted the patients and closed the room.

The prisoners could not speak in too high terms of their doctors. They looked upon them truly as fathers and respected them. These doctors had always something pleasant to say, a kind word even for reprobates, who appreciated it all the more because they knew it was said in all sincerity.

Yes, these kind words were really sincere, for no one would have thought of blaming the doctors had they shown themselves cross and inhuman; they were kind purely from humanity. They understood perfectly that a convict who is sick has as much right to breathe pure air as any other person, even though the latter might be a great personage. The convalescents there had a right to walk freely through the corridors to take exercise, and to breathe air less pestilential than that of our infirmary, which was close and saturated with deleterious emanations. In our ward, when once the doors had been closed in the evening, they had to remain closed throughout the night, and under no pretext was one of the inmates allowed to go out.

For many years an inexplicable fact troubled me like an insoluble problem. I must speak of it before going on with my description. I am thinking of the chains which every convict is obliged to wear, however ill he may be; even consumptives have died beneath my eyes with their legs loaded with irons.

Everybody was accustomed to it, and regarded it as an inevitable fact. I do not think any one, even the doctors, would have thought of demanding the removal of the irons from convicts who were seriously ill, not even from the consumptive ones. The chains, it is true, were not exceedingly heavy; they did not in general weigh more than eight or ten pounds, which is a supportable burden for a man in good health. I have been told, however, that after some years the legs of the convicts dry up and waste away. I do not know whether it is true. I am inclined to think it is; the weight, however light it may be (say not more than ten pounds), if it is fixed to the leg for ever, increases the general weight in an abnormal manner, and at the end of a certain time must have a disastrous effect on its development.

For a convict in good health this is nothing, but the same cannot be said of one who is sick. For the convicts who were seriously ill, for the consumptive ones whose arms and legs dry up of themselves, this last straw is insupportable. Even if the medical authorities claimed alleviation for the consumptive patients alone, it would be an immense benefit, I assure you. I shall be told convicts are malefactors, unworthy of compassion; but ought increased severity to be shown towards him on whom the finger of God already weighs? No one will believe that the object of this aggravation is to reform the criminal. The consumptive prisoners are exempted from corporal punishment by the tribunal.

There must be some mysterious, important reason for all this, but what it is, it is impossible to understand. No one believes—it is impossible to believe—that a consumptive man will run away. Who can think of such a thing, especially if the illness has reached a certain degree of intensity? It is impossible to deceive the doctors and make them mistake a convict in good health for one who is in a consumption, for this malady is one that can be recognised at the first glance. Moreover, can the irons prevent the convict not in good health from escaping? Not in the least. The irons are a degradation and shame, a physical and moral burden; but they would not hinder any one attempting to escape. The most awkward and least intelligent convict can saw through them, or break the rivets by hammering at them with a stone. Chains, then, are a useless precaution; and if the convicts wear them as a punishment, should not this punishment be spared to dying men?

As I write these lines, a face stands out from my memory: that of a dying man, a man who died in consumption, this same Mikhailoff, whose bed was nearly opposite me, and who expired, I think, four days after my arrival at the hospital. When I spoke above of the consumptive patients, I was only reproducing involuntarily the sensations and ideas which occurred to me on the occasion of this death. I knew Mikhailoff very little; he was a young man of twenty-five at most, not very tall, thin, and with a fine face; he belonged to the “special section,” and was remarkable for his strange, but soft and sad taciturnity; he seemed to have “dried up” in the convict prison, to use an expression employed by the convicts who had a good recollection of him. I remember he had very fine eyes. I really cannot tell why I think of that.

He died at three o’clock in the afternoon on a clear, dry day. The sun was darting its brilliant rays obliquely through the greenish, frozen panes of our room. A torrent of light inundated the unhappy patient, who had lost all consciousness, and was several hours dying. From the early morning his sight became confused; he was unable to recognise those who approached him. The convicts would gladly have done anything to relieve him, for they saw he was in great suffering. His respiration was painful, deep, and irregular; his breast rose and fell violently, as though he were in want of air; he cast his blanket and his clothes far from him. Then he began to tear up his shirt, which seemed to him a terrible burden. It was taken off. Then it was frightful to see this immensely long body, with fleshless arms and legs, with beating breast, and ribs which were as clearly marked as those of a skeleton. There was nothing now on this skeleton but a cross and the irons, from which his dried-up legs might easily have freed themselves. A quarter of an hour before his death everything was silent in our ward, and the inmates spoke only in whispers. The convicts walked on the tips of their toes. From time to time they exchanged remarks on other subjects, and cast a furtive glance at the dying man. The rattling in his throat grew more and more painful. At last, with a trembling hand, he felt the cross on his breast and endeavoured to tear it off; it was also weighing upon him, suffocating him. It was taken off. Ten minutes afterwards, he died. Some one then knocked at the door in order to give notice to the sentinel; the warder entered, looked at the dead man with a vacant air, and went away to get the assistant-surgeon. The assistant-surgeon was a good fellow enough, but a little too much occupied with his personal appearance, otherwise very agreeable; he soon arrived, went up to the corpse with long strides which made a noise in the silent ward, and felt the dead man’s pulse with an unconcerned air which seemed to have been put on for the occasion. He then made a vague gesture with his hand and went out.

Information was given at the guard-house; for the criminal was an important one (he belonged to the special section), and in order to register his death it was necessary to go through some formalities. While we were waiting for the hospital guard to come, one of the prisoners said in a whisper, “The eyes of the defunct might as well be closed.” Another one profited by this remark, and approaching Mikhailoff in silence, closed his eyes; then perceiving on the pillow the cross which had been taken from his neck, he took it and looked at it, put it down, and crossed himself. The face of the dead man was becoming ossified; a ray of white light was playing on the surface and illuminated two rows of white, good teeth which sparkled between his thin lips, glued to the gums by the mouth.

The non-commissioned officer on guard arrived at last, musket on shoulder, helmet on head, accompanied by two soldiers; he approached the corpse, slackening his pace with an air of uncertainty. Then he examined with a side glance the silent prisoners, who looked at him with a sombre expression. At one step from the dead man he stopped short, as if suddenly nailed to the spot; the naked, dried-up body, loaded with irons, had impressed him; he undid his chin-strap, removed his helmet (which was not at all necessary for him to do), and made the sign of the cross; he had a gray head, the head of a soldier who had seen much service. I remember that by his side stood Tchekounoff, an old man who was also gray. He looked all the time at the non-commissioned officer, and followed all his movements with strange attention. They glanced across, and I saw that Tchekounoff also trembled. He bit and closed his teeth, and said to the non-commissioned officer, as if involuntarily, at the same time nodding his head in the direction of the dead man, “He had a mother, too!”

These words went to my heart. Why had he said them? and how did this idea occur to him? The corpse was raised with the mattress; the straw creaked, the chains dragged along the ground with a sharp ring; they were taken up and the body was carried out. Suddenly all spoke once more in a loud voice. The non-commissioned officer in the corridor could well be heard crying out to some one to go for the blacksmith. It was necessary to take the dead man’s irons off. But I have digressed from my subject.

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