The House of the Dead, by Fyodor Dostoyevsky

Chapter 4.

The Husband of Akoulka

It was late at night, about eleven o’clock. I had been sleeping some time and woke up with a start. The wan and weak light of the distant lamp barely lit the room. Nearly everybody was fast asleep, even Oustiantsef; in the quiet of the night I heard his difficult breathing, and the rattlings in his throat with every respiration. In the ante-chamber sounded the heavy and distant footsteps of the patrol as the men came up. The butt of a gun struck the floor with its low and heavy sound.

The door of the room was opened, and the corporal counted the sick, stepping softly about the place. After a minute or so he closed the door again, leaving a fresh sentinel there; the patrol went off, silence reigned again. It was only then that I observed two prisoners, not far from me, who were not sleeping, and who seemed to be holding a muttered conversation. Sometimes, in fact, it would happen that a couple of sick people, whose beds adjoined and who had not exchanged a word for weeks, would all of a sudden break out into conversation with one another, in the middle of the night, and one of them would tell the other his history.

Probably they had been speaking for some considerable time. I did not hear the beginning of it, and could not at first seize upon their words, but little by little I got familiar with the muttered sounds, and understood all that was going on. I had not the least desire for sleep on me, so what could I do but listen.

One of them was telling his story with some warmth, half-lying on his bed, with his head lifted and stretched towards his companion. He was plainly excited to no little degree; the necessity of speech was on him.

The man listening was sitting up on his pallet, with a gloomy and indifferent air, his legs stretched out flat on the mattress, and now and again murmured some words in reply, more out of politeness than interest, and kept stuffing his nose with snuff from a horn box. This was the soldier Techérévin, one of the company of discipline; a morose, cold-reasoning pedant, an idiot full of amour propre; while the narrator was Chichkof, about thirty years old; this was a civilian convict, whom up to that time I had not at all observed; and during the whole time I was at the prison I never could get up the smallest interest in him, for he was a conceited, heady fellow.

Sometimes he would hold his tongue for weeks together, and look sulky and brutal enough for anything; then all of a sudden he would strike into anything that was going on, behave insufferably, go into a white heat about nothing at all, and tell you long stories with nothing in them whatever about one barrack or another, blowing abuse on all the world, and acting like a man beside himself. Then some one would give him a hiding, and he would have another fit of silence. He was a mean and cowardly fellow, and the object of general contempt. His stature was low, he had little flesh on him, he had wandering eyes, though they sometimes got mixed and seemed filled with a stupid sort of thinking. When he told you anything he worked himself into a fever, gesticulated wildly, suddenly broke off and went to another subject, lost himself in fresh details, and at last forgot altogether what he was talking about. He often got into squabbles, this Chichkof, and when he poured insult on his adversary, he spoke with a sentimental whine and was affected nearly to tears. He was not a bad hand at playing the balalaika, and had a weakness for it; on fête days he would show you his dancing powers when others set him at it, and he danced by no means badly. You could easily enough make him do what you wanted . . . not that he was of a complying turn, but he liked to please and to get intimate with fellows.

For some considerable time I couldn’t understand the story Chichkoff was telling; that night I mean. It seemed to me as though he were constantly rambling from the point to talk of something else. Perhaps he had observed that Tchérévine was paying little attention to the narrative, but I fancy that he was minded to overlook this indifference, so as not to take offence.

“When he went out on business,” he continued, “every one saluted him politely, paid him every respect . . . a fellow with money that.”

“You say that he was in some trade or other.”

“Yes; trade indeed! The trading class in my country is wretchedly ill-off; just poverty-stricken. The women go to the river and fetch water from ever such a distance to water their gardens. They wear themselves to the very bone, and, for all that, when winter comes, they haven’t got enough to make a mere cabbage soup. I tell you it’s starvation. But that fellow had a good lump of land, which his labourers cultivated; he had three. Then he had hives, and sold his honey; he was a cattle-dealer too; a much respected man in our parts. He was very old and quite gray, his seventy years lay heavy on his old bones. When he came to the market-place with his fox-skin pelisse, everybody saluted him.

“‘Good-day, daddy Aukoudim Trophimtych!’

“‘Good-day,’ he’d return.

“‘How are you getting along;’ he never looked down on any one.

“‘God keep you, Aukoudim Trophimtych!’

“‘How goes business with you?’

“‘Business is as good as tallow’s white with me; and how’s yours, daddy?’

“‘We’ve just got enough of a livelihood to pay the price of sin; always sweating over our bit of land.’

“‘Lord preserve you, Aukoudim Trophimtych!’

“He never looked down on anybody. All his advice was always worth having; every one of his words was worth a rouble. A great reader he was, quite a man of learning; but he stuck to religious books. He would call his old wife and say to her, ‘Listen, woman, take well in what I say;’ then he would explain things. His old Marie Stépanovna was not exactly an old woman, if you please; it was his second wife; he had married her to have children, his first wife had not brought him any. He had two boys still quite young, for the second of them was born when his father was close on sixty; Akoulka, his daughter, was eighteen years old, she was the eldest.”

“Your wife? Isn’t it so?”

“Wait a bit, wait. Then Philka Marosof begins to kick up a row. Says he to Aukoudim: ‘Let’s split the difference. Give me back my four hundred roubles. I’m not your beast of burden; I don’t want to do any more business with you, and I don’t want to marry your Akoulka. I want to have my fling now that my parents are dead. I’ll liquor away my money, then I’ll engage myself, ‘list for a soldier; and in ten years I’ll come back here a field-marshal!’ Aukoudim gave him back his money—all he had of his. You see he and Philka’s father had both put in money and done business together.

“‘You’re a lost man,’ that’s what he said to Philka.

“‘Whether I’m a lost man or not, old gray-beard, you’re the biggest cheat I know. You’d try to screw a fortune out of four farthings, and pick up all the dirt about to do it with. I spit upon it. There you are piling up here, digging deep there, the devil only knows why. I’ve got a will of my own, I tell you. All the same I won’t take your Akoulka; I’ve slept with her already.’

“‘How dare you insult a respectable father—a respectable girl? When did you sleep with her, you spawn of the sucker, you dog, you hound, you——?’ said Aukoudim shaking with passion. (Philka told us all this later).

“‘I’ll not only not marry your daughter, but I’ll take good care that nobody marries her, not even Mikita Grigoritch, for she’s a disreputable girl. We had a fine time together, she and I, all last autumn. I don’t want her at any price. All the money in the world wouldn’t make me take her.’

“Then the fellow went and had high jinks for a while. All the town was as one man in sending up a cry against him. He got a lot of other fellows round him, for he had a heap of money. Three months he had of it. Such recklessness as you never heard of. Every penny went.

“‘I want to see the end of this money. I’ll sell the house; everything; then I’ll ‘list or go on the tramp.’

“He was drunk from morning to evening, and went about with a carriage and pair.

“The girls liked him well, I tell you, for he played the guitar very nicely.”

“Then it is true that he had been too well with this Akoulka?”

“Wait, wait, can’t you? I had just buried my father. My mother lived by baking gingerbread. We got our livelihood by working for Aukoudim; barely enough to eat, a precious hard life it was. We had a bit of land the other side of the woods, and grew corn there; but when my father died I went on a spree. I made my mother give me money; but I had to give her a good hiding first.”

“You were very wrong to beat her; a great sin that?”

“Sometimes I was drunk the whole blessed day. We had a house that was just tumbling to pieces with dry rot, still it was our own; we were as near famished as could be; for weeks together we had nothing but rags to chew. Mother nearly killed me with one stupid trick or another, but I didn’t care a curse. Philka Marosof and I were always together day and night. ‘Play the guitar to me,’ he’d say, ‘and I’ll lie in bed the while. I’ll throw money to you, for I’m the richest chap in the world!’ The fellow could not speak without lying. There was only one thing. He wouldn’t touch a thing if it had been stolen. ‘I’m no thief, I’m an honest man. Let’s go and daub Akoulka’s door with pitch,5 for I won’t have her marry Mikita Grigoritch, I’ll stick to that.’

“The old man had long meant to give his daughter to this Mikita Grigoritch. He was a man well on in life, in trade too, and wore spectacles. When he heard the story of Akoulka’s bad conduct, he said to the old father, ‘That would be a terrible disgrace for me, Aukoudim Trophimtych; on the whole, I’ve made up my mind not to marry; it’s to late.’

“So we went and daubed Akoulka’s door all over with pitch. When we’d done that her folks beat her so that they nearly killed her.

“Her mother, Marie Stépanovna, cried, ‘I shall die of it,’ while the old man said, ‘If we were in the days of the patriarchs, I’d have hacked her to pieces on a block. But now everything is rottenness and corruption in this world.’ Sometimes the neighbours from one end of the street to the other heard Akoulka’s screams. She was whipped from morning to evening, and Philka would cry out in the market-place before everybody:

“Akoulka’s a jolly girl to get drunk with. I’ve given it those people between the eyes, they won’t forget me in a hurry.’

“Well, one day, I met Akoulka, she was going for water with her bucket, so I cried out to her: ‘A fine morning, pet Akoulka Koudimovna! you’re the girl who knows how to please fellows. Who’s living with you now, and where do you get your money for your finery?’ That’s just what I said to her; she opened her eyes as wide as you please. No more flesh on her than on a log of wood. She had only just given me a look, but her mother thought she was larking with me, and cried from her door-step, ‘Impudent hussy, what do you mean by talking with that fellow?’ And from that moment they began to beat her again. Sometimes they hided her for an hour together. The mother said, ‘I give her the whip because she isn’t my daughter any more.’”

“She was then as bad as they said?”

“Now you just listen to my story, nunky, will you? Well, we used to get drunk all the time with Philka. One day when I was abed, mother comes and says:

“‘What d’ye mean by lying in bed, you hound, you thief!’ She abused me for some time, then she said, ‘Marry Akoulka. They’ll be glad to give her to you, and they’ll give three hundred roubles with her.’

“‘But,’ says I, ‘all the world knows that she’s a bad girl——’

“‘Hist, the marriage ceremony cures all that; besides, she’ll always be in fear of her life from you, so you’ll be in clover together. Their money would make us comfortable; I’ve spoken about the marriage already to Marie Stépanovna, we’re of one mind about it.’

“So I say, ‘Let’s have twenty roubles down on the spot, and I’ll have her.’

“Well, you needn’t believe it unless you please, but I was drunk right up to the wedding-day. Then Philka Marosof kept threatening me all the time.

“‘I’ll break every bone in your body, a nice fellow you to be engaged, and to Akoulka; if I like I’ll sleep every blessed night with her when she’s your wife.’

“‘You’re a hound, and a liar,’ that’s what I said to him. But he insulted me so in the street, before everybody, that I ran to Aukoudim’s and said, ‘I won’t marry her unless I have fifty roubles down this moment.’”

“And they really did give her to you in marriage?”

“Me? Why not, I should like to know? We were respectable people enough. Father had been ruined by a fire a little before he died; he had been a richer man than Aukoudim Trophimtych.

“‘A fellow without a shirt to his back like you ought to be only too happy to marry my daughter;’ that’s what old Aukoudim said.

“‘Just you think of your door, and the pitch that went on it,’ I said to him.

“‘Stuff and nonsense,’ said he, ‘there’s no proof whatever that the girl’s gone wrong.’

“‘Please yourself. There’s the door, and you can go about your business; but give back the money you’ve had!’

“Then Philka Marosof and I settled it together to send Mitri Bykoff to Father Aukoudim to tell him that we’d insult him to his face before everybody. Well, I had my skin as full as it could hold right up to the wedding-day. I wasn’t sober till I got into the church. When they took us home after church the girl’s uncle, Mitrophone Stépanytch, said:

“‘This isn’t a nice business; but it’s over and done now.’

“Old Aukoudim was sitting there crying, the tears rolled down on his gray beard. Comrade, I’ll tell you what I had done: I had put a whip into my pocket before we went to church, and I’d made up my mind to have it out of her with that, so that all the world might know how I’d been swindled into the marriage, and not think me a bigger fool than I am.”

“I see, and you wanted her to know what was in store for her. Ah, was——?”

“Quiet, nunky, quiet! Among our people I’ll tell you how it is; directly after the marriage ceremony they take the couple to a room apart, and the others remain drinking till they return. So I’m left alone with Akoulka; she was pale, not a bit of colour on her cheeks; frightened out of her wits. She had fine hair, supple and bright as flax, and great big eyes. She scarcely ever was known to speak; you might have thought she was dumb; an odd creature, Akoulka, if ever there was one. Well, you can just imagine the scene. My whip was ready on the bed. Well, she was as pure a girl as ever was, not a word of it all was true.”

“Impossible!”

“True, I swear; as good a girl as any good family might wish.”

“Then, brother, why—why—why had she had to undergo all that torture? Why had Philka Marosof slandered her so?”

“Yes, why, indeed?”

“Well, I got down from the bed, and went on my knees before her, and put my hands together as if I were praying, and just said to her, ‘Little mother, pet, Akoulka Koudimovna, forgive me for having been such an idiot as to believe all that slander; forgive me. I’m a hound!’

“She was seated on the bed, and gazed at me fixedly. She put her two hands on my shoulders and began to laugh; but the tears were running all down her cheeks. She sobbed and laughed all at once.

“Then I went out and said to the people in the other room, ‘Let Philka Marosof look to himself. If I come across him he won’t be long for this world.’

“The old people were beside themselves with delight. Akoulka’s mother was ready to throw herself at her daughter’s feet, and sobbed.

“Then the old man said, ‘If we had known really how it was, my dearest child, we wouldn’t have given you a husband of that sort.’

“You ought to have seen how we were dressed the first Sunday after our marriage—when we left church! I’d got a long coat of fine cloth, a fur cap, with plush breeches. She had a pelisse of hareskin, quite new, and a silk kerchief on her head. One was as fine as the other. Everybody admired us. I must say I looked well, and pet Akoulka did too. One oughtn’t to boast, but one oughtn’t to sing small. I tell you people like us are not turned out by the dozen.”

“Not a doubt about it.”

“Just you listen, I tell you. The day after my marriage I ran off from my guests, drunk as I was, and went about the streets crying, ‘Where’s that scoundrel of a Philka Marosof? Just let him come near me, the hound, that’s all!’ I went all over the market-place yelling that out. I was as drunk as a man could be, and stand.

“They went after me and caught me close to Vlassof’s place. It took three men to get me back again to the house.

“Well, nothing else was spoken about all over the village. The girls said, when they met in the market-place, ‘Well, you’ve heard the news—Akoulka was all right!’

“A little while after I do come across Philka Marosof, who said to me before everybody, strangers to the place, too, ‘Sell your wife, and spend the money on drink. Jackka the soldier only married for that; he didn’t sleep one night with his wife; but he got enough to keep his skin full for three years.’

“I answered him, ‘Hound!’

“‘But,’ says he, ‘you’re an idiot! You didn’t know what you were about when you married—you were drunk. How could you tell all about it?’

“So off I went to the house, and cried out to them ‘You married me when I was drunk.’

“Akoulka’s mother tried to fasten herself on me; but I cried, ‘Mother, you don’t know about anything but money. You bring me Akoulka!’

“And didn’t I beat her! I tell you I beat her for two hours running, till I rolled on the floor myself with fatigue. She couldn’t leave her bed for three weeks.”

“It’s a dead sure thing,” said Tchérévine phlegmatically; “if you don’t beat them they—— Did you find her with her lover?”

“No; to tell the truth, I never actually caught her,” said Chichkoff after a pause, speaking with effort; “but I was hurt, a good deal hurt, for every one made fun of me. The cause of it all was Philka. ‘Your wife is just made for everybody to look at,’ said he.

“One day he invited us to see him, and then he went at it. ‘Do just look what a good little wife he has! Isn’t she tender, fine, nicely brought up, affectionate, full of kindness for all the world? I say, my lad, have you forgotten how we daubed their door with pitch?’ I was full at that moment, drunk as may be; then he seized me by the hair and had me down upon the ground before I knew where I was. ‘Come along—dance; aren’t you Akoulka’s husband? I’ll hold your hair for you, and you shall dance; it will be good fun.’ ‘Dog!’ said I to him. ‘I’ll bring some jolly fellows to your house,’ said he, ‘and I’ll whip your Akoulka before your very eyes just as long as I please.’ Would you believe it? For a whole month I daren’t go out of the house, I was so afraid he’d come to us and drag my wife through the dirt. And how I did beat her for it!”

“What was the use of beating her? You can tie a woman’s hands, but not her tongue. You oughtn’t to give them a hiding too often. Beat ’em a bit, then scold ’em well, then fondle ’em; that’s what a woman is made for.”

Chichkoff remained quite silent for a few moments.

“I was very much hurt,” he went on; “I began it again just as before. I beat her from morning till night for nothing; because she didn’t get up from her seat the way I liked; because she didn’t walk to suit me. When I wasn’t hiding her, time hung heavy on my hands. Sometimes she sat by the window crying silently—it hurt my feelings sometimes to see her cry, but I beat her all the same. Sometimes her mother abused me for it: ‘You’re a scoundrel, a gallows-bird!’ ‘Don’t say a word or I’ll kill you; you made me marry her when I was drunk, you swindled me.’ Old Aukoudim wanted at first to have his finger in the pie. Said he to me one day: ‘Look here, you’re not such a tremendous fellow that one can’t put you down;’ but he didn’t get far on that track. Marie Stépanovna had become as sweet as milk. One day she came to me crying her eyes out and said: ‘My heart is almost broken, Ivan Semionytch; what I’m going to ask of you is a little thing for you, but it is a good deal to me; let her go, let her leave you, daddy Ivan.’ Then she throws herself at my feet. ‘Do give up being so angry! Wicked people slander her; you know quite well she was good when you married her.’ Then she threw herself at my feet again and cried. But I was as hard as nails. ‘I won’t hear a word you have to say; what I choose to do, I do, to you or anybody, for I’m crazed with it all. As to Philka Marosof, he’s my best and dearest friend.’”

“You’d begun to play your pranks together again, you and he?”

“No, by Jove! He was out of the way by this time; he was killing himself with drink, nothing less. He had spent all he had on drink, and had ‘listed for a soldier, as substitute for a citizen body in the town. In our parts, when a lad makes up his mind to be substitute for another, he is master of that house and everybody there till he’s called to the ranks. He gets the sum agreed on the day he goes off, but up to then he lives in the house of the man who buys him, sometimes six whole months, and there isn’t a horror in the whole world those fellows are not guilty of. It’s enough to make folks take the holy images out of the house. From the moment he consents to be substitute for the son of the family then he considers himself their patron and benefactor, and makes them dance as he pipes, or else he goes off the bargain.

“So Philka Marosof played the very mischief at the home of this townsman. He slept with the daughter, pulled the master of the house by the beard after dinner, did anything that came into his head. They had to heat the bath for him every day, and, what’s more, give him brandy fumes with the steam of the bath: and he would have the women lead him by the arms to the bath room.6

“When he came back to the man’s house after a revel elsewhere, he would stop right in the middle of the road and cry out:

“‘I won’t go in by the door; pull down the fence!’

“And they actually had to pull down the fence, though there was the door right at it to let him in. That all came to an end though, the day they took him to the regiment. That day he was sobered sufficiently. The crowd gathered all through the street.

“‘They’re taking off Philka Marosof!’

“He made a salute on all sides, right and left. Just at that moment Akoulka was returning from the kitchen-garden. Directly Philka saw her he cried out to her:

“‘Stop!’ and down he jumped from the cart and threw himself down at her feet.

“‘My soul, my sweet little strawberry, I’ve loved you two years long. Now they’re taking me off to the regiment with the band playing. Forgive me, good honest girl of a good honest father, for I’m nothing but a hound, and all you’ve gone through is my fault.’

“Then he flings himself down before her a second time. At first Akoulka was exceedingly frightened; but she made him a great bow, which nearly bent her double.

“‘Forgive me, too, my good lad; but I am really not at all angry with you.’

“As she went into the house I was at her heels.

“‘What did you say to him, you she-devil, you?’

“Now you may believe it or not as you like, but she looked at me as bold as you please, and answered:

“‘I love him better than anything or anybody in this world.’

“‘I say!’

“That day I didn’t utter one single word. Only towards evening I said to her: ‘Akoulka, I’m going to kill you now.’ I didn’t close an eye the whole night. I went into the little room leading to ours and drank kwass. At daybreak I went into the house again. ‘Akoulka, get ready and come into the fields.’ I had arranged to go there before; my wife knew it.

“‘You are right,’ said she. ‘It’s quite time to begin reaping. I’ve heard that our labourer is ill and doesn’t work a bit.’

“I put to the cart without saying a word. As you go out of the town there’s a forest fifteen versts in length. At the end of it is our field. When we had gone about three versts through the wood I stopped the horse.

“‘Come, get up, Akoulka; your end is come.’

“She looked at me all in a fright, and got up without a word.

“‘You’ve tormented me enough. Say your prayers.’

“I seized her by the hair—she had long, thick tresses—I rolled them round my arm. I held her between my knees; took out my knife; threw her head back, and cut her throat. She screamed; the blood spurted out. Then I threw away my knife. I pressed her with all my might in my arms. I put her on the ground and embraced her, yelling with all my might. She screamed; I yelled; she struggled and struggled. The blood—her blood—splashed my face, my hands. It was stronger than I was—stronger. Then I took fright. I left her—left my horse and began to run; ran back to the house.

“I went in the back way, and hid myself in the old ramshackle bath-house, which we never used now. I lay myself down under the seat, and remained hid till the dead of the night.”

“And Akoulka?”

“She got up to come back to the house; they found her later, a hundred steps from the place.”

“So you hadn’t finished her?”

“No.” Chichkoff stopped a while.

“Yes,” said Tchérévine, “there’s a vein; if you don’t cut it at the first the man will go on struggling; the blood may flow fast enough, but he won’t die.”

“But she was dead all the same. They found her in the evening, and she was cold. They told the police, and hunted me up. They found me in the night in the old bath.

“And there you have it. I’ve been four years here already,” added he, after a pause.

“Yes, if you don’t beat ’em you make no way at all,” said Tchérévine sententiously, taking out his snuff-box once more. He took his pinches very slowly, with long pauses. “For all that, my lad, you behaved like a fool. Why, I myself—I came upon my wife with a lover. I made her come into the shed, and then I doubled up a halter and said to her:

“‘To whom did you swear to be faithful?—to whom did you swear it in church? Tell me that?’

“And then I gave it her with my halter—beat her and beat her for an hour and a half; till at last she was quite spent, and cried out:

“‘I’ll wash your feet and drink the water afterwards.’

“Her name was Crodotia.”

5 Daubing the door of a house, where a young girl lives, is done to show that she is dishonoured.

6 A mark of respect paid in Russia formerly, now disused.

https://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/d/dostoyevsky/house-of-the-dead/part2.4.html

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