The House of the Dead, by Fyodor Dostoyevsky

Chapter 6.

The Animals at the Convict Establishment

Gniedko, a bay horse, was bought a little while afterwards, and the event furnished a much more agreeable and interesting diversion to the convicts than the visit of the high personage I have been talking about. We required a horse at the jail for carrying water, refuse matter, etc. He was given to a convict to take care of and use; this man drove him, under escort, of course. Our horse had plenty to do morning and night; it was a worthy sort of beast, but a good deal worn, and had been in service for a long time already.

One fine morning, the eve of St. Peter’s Day, Gniedko, our bay, who was dragging a barrel of water, fell all of a heap, and gave up the ghost in a few minutes. He was much regretted, so all the convicts gathered round him to discuss his death. Those who had served in the cavalry, the Tsigans, the veterinary fellows, and others, showed a profound knowledge of horses in general and fiercely argued the question; but all that did not bring our bay horse to life again; there he was stretched out and dead, with his belly all swollen. Every one thought it incumbent on him to feel about the poor thing with his hands; finally the Major was informed of what Providence had done in the horse’s case, and it was decided that another should be bought at once.

St. Peter’s Day, quite early after mass, all the convicts being together, horses that were on sale were brought in. It was left to the prisoners to choose an animal, for there were some thorough experts among them, and it would have been difficult to take in 250 men, with whom horse-dealing had been a speciality. Tsigans, Lesghians, professional horse-dealers, townsmen, came in to deal. The convicts were exceedingly eager about the matter as each fresh horse was brought up, and were as amused as children about it all. It seemed to tickle their fancy very much, that they had to buy a horse like free men, just as if it was for themselves and the money was to come out of their own pockets. Three horses were brought and taken away before purchase; the fourth was settled on. The horse-dealers seemed astonished and a little awed at the soldiers of the escort who watched the business. Two hundred men, clean shaven, branded as they were, with chains on their feet, were well calculated to inspire respect, all the more as they were in their own place, at home so to speak, in their own convict’s den, where nobody was ever allowed to come.

Our fellows seemed to be up to no end of tricks for finding out the real value of a horse brought up; they carefully examined it, handled it with the most serious demeanour, went on as if the welfare of the establishment was bound up with the purchase of this beast. The Circassians took the liberty of jumping upon his back: their eyes shone wildly, they chatted rapidly in their incomprehensible dialect, showed their white teeth, dilating the nostrils of their hooked copper-coloured noses. There were some Russians who paid the most lively attention to their discussion, and seemed ready to jump down their throats; they did not understand a word, but it was plain they did what they could to gather from the expression of the eyes of the fellows whether the horse was good or not. But what could it matter to a convict, especially to some of them, who were creatures altogether down and done for, who never ventured to utter a single word to the others? What could it matter to such as these, whether one horse or another was bought? Yet it seemed as if it did. The Circassians appeared to be most relied on for their opinion, and besides these a foremost place in the discussion was given to the Tsigans, and those who had formerly been horse-dealers.

There was a regular sort of duel between two convicts—the Tsigan Koulikoff, who had been a horse-dealer and stealer, and another who had been a professional veterinary, a tricky Siberian peasant, who had been at the establishment and at hard labour for some time, and who had succeeded in getting all Koulikoff’s practice in the town. I ought to mention that the veterinary practitioners at the prison, though without diploma, were very much sought after, and that not only the townspeople and tradespeople, but high officials in the city, took their advice when their horses fell ill, rather than that of several regularly diplomatised veterinaries who were at the place.

Till Jolkin came, the Siberian peasant Koulikoff had had plenty of clients from whom he had had fees in good hard cash. He was looked on as quite at the head of his business. He was a Tsigan all over in his doings, liar and cheat, and not at all the master of his art he boasted of being. The income he made had raised him to be a sort of aristocrat among our convicts; he was listened to and obeyed, but he spoke little, and expressed an opinion only in great emergencies. He blew his own trumpet loudly, but he really was a fellow of great energy; he was of ripe age, and of quite marked intelligence. When he spoke to us of the nobility, he did so with exquisite politeness and perfect dignity. I am sure that if he had been suitably dressed, and introduced into a club at the capital with the title of Count, he would have lived up to it; played whist, talked to admiration like a man used to command, and one who knew when to hold his tongue. I am sure that the whole evening would have passed without any one guessing that the “Count” was nothing but a vagabond. He had very probably had a very large and varied experience in life; as to his past, it was quite unknown to us. They kept him among the convicts who formed a special section reserved from the others.

But no sooner had Jolkin come—he was a simple peasant, one of the “old believers,” but just as tricky as it was possible for a moujik to be—the veterinary glory of Koulikoff paled sensibly. In less than two months the Siberian had got from him all his town practice, for he cured in a very short time horses Koulikoff had declared incurable, and which had been given up by the regular veterinaries. This peasant had been condemned and sent to hard labour for coining. It is an odd thing he should ever have been tempted to go into that line of business. He told us all about it himself, and joked about their wanting three coins of genuine gold to make one false.

Koulikoff was not a little put out at this peasant’s success, while his own glory so rapidly declined. There was he who had had a mistress in the suburbs, who used to wear a plush jacket and top-boots, and here he was now obliged to turn tavern-keeper; so everybody looked out for a regular row when the new horse was bought. The thing was very interesting, each of them had his partisans; the more eager among them got to angry words about it on the spot. The cunning face of Jolkin was all wrinkled into a sarcastic smile; but it turned out quite differently from what was expected. Koulikoff had not the least desire for argument or dispute, he managed cunningly without that. At first he gave way on every point, and listened deferentially to his rival’s criticisms, then he caught him up sharply on some remark or other, and pointed out to him modestly but firmly that he was all wrong. In a word, Jolkin was utterly discomfited in a surprisingly clever way, so Koulikoff’s side was quite well pleased.

“I say, boys, it’s no use talking; you can’t trip him up. He knows what he is about,” said some.

“Jolkin knows more about the matter than he does,” said others; not offensively, however. Both sides were ready to make concessions.

“Then, he’s got a lighter hand, besides having more in his head. I tell you that when it comes to stock, horses, or anything else, Koulikoff needn’t duck under to anybody.”

“Nor need Jolkin, I tell you.”

“There’s nobody like Koulikoff.”

The new horse was selected and bought. It was a capital gelding—young, vigorous, and handsome; an irreproachable beast altogether. The bargaining began. The owner asked thirty roubles; the convicts wouldn’t give more than twenty-five. The higgling went on long and hotly. At length the convicts began laughing.

“Does the money come out of your own purse?” said some. “What’s the good of all this?”

“Do you want to save for the Government cashbox?” cried others.

“But it’s money that belongs to us all, pals,” said one.

“Us all! It’s plain enough that you needn’t trouble to grow idiots, they’ll come up of themselves without it.”

At last the business was settled at twenty-eight roubles. The Major was informed, the purchase sanctioned. Bread and salt were brought at once, and the new boarder led in triumph into the jail. There was not one of the convicts, I think, that did not pat his neck or caress his head.

The day we got him he was at once put to fetching water. All the convicts gazed on him curiously as he pulled at his barrel.

Our waterman, the convict Roman, kept his eyes on the beast with a stupid sort of satisfaction. He was formerly a peasant, about fifty years of age, serious and silent, like all the Russian coachmen, whose behaviour would really seem to acquire some extra gravity by reason of their being always with horses.

Roman was a quiet creature, affable all round, said little, took snuff from a box. He had taken care of the horses at the jail for some time before that. The one just bought was the third given into his charge since he came to the place.

The coachman’s office fell, as a matter of course, to Roman; nobody would have dreamed of contesting his right to it. When the bay horse dropped and died, nobody dreamed of accusing Roman of imprudence, not even the Major. It was the will of God, that was all; as to Roman, he knew his business.

That bay horse had become the pet of the jail at once. The convicts were not particularly tender fellows; but they could not help coming to pet him often.

Sometimes when Roman, returning from the river, shut the great gate which the sub-officer had opened, Gniedko would stand quite still waiting for his driver, and turning to him as for orders.

“Get along, you know the way,” Roman would cry to him. Then Gniedko would go off peaceably to the kitchen and stop there, and the cooks and other servants of the place would fill their buckets with water, which Gniedko seemed to know all about.

“Gniedko, you’re a trump! He’s brought his water-barrel himself. He’s a delight to see!” they would cry to him.

“That’s true; he’s only a beast, but he knows all that’s said to him.”

“No end of a horse is our Gniedko!”

Then the horse shook his head and snorted, just as if he really understood all about his being praised; then some one would bring him bread and salt; and when he had finished with them he would shake his head again, as if to say, “I know you; I know you. I’m a good horse, and you’re a good fellow.”

I was quite fond of regaling Gniedko with bread. It was quite a pleasure to me to look at his nice mouth, and to feel his warm, moist lips licking up the crumbs from the palm of my hand.

Our convicts were fond of live things, and if they had been allowed would have filled the barracks with birds and domestic animals. What could possibly have been better than attending to such creatures for raising and softening the wild temper of the prisoners? But it was not permitted; it was not in the regulations; and, truth to say, there was no room there for many creatures.

However, in my time some animals had established themselves in the jail. Besides Gniedko, we had some dogs, geese, a he-goat—Vaska—and an eagle, which remained only a short time.

I think I have said before that our dog was called Bull, and that he and I had struck up a friendship; but as the lower orders regard dogs as impure animals undeserving of attention, nobody minded him. He lived in the jail itself; slept in the court-yard; ate the leavings of the kitchen, and had no hold whatever on the sympathy of the convicts; all of whom he knew, however, and regarded as masters and owners. When the men assigned to work came back to the jail, at the cry of “Corporal,” he used to run to the great gate and gaily welcome the gang, wagging his tail and looking into every man’s eyes, as though he expected a caress. But for several years his little ways were as useless as they were engaging. Nobody but myself did caress him; so I was the one he preferred to all others. Somehow—I don’t know in what way—we got another dog. Snow he was called. As to the third, Koultiapka, I brought him myself to the place when he was but a pup.

Our Snow was a strange creature. A telega had gone over him and driven in his spine, so that it made a curve inside him. When you saw him running at a distance, he looked like twin-dogs born with a ligament. He was very mangy, too, with bleary eyes, and his tail was hairless, and always hanging between his legs.

Victim of ill-fate as he was, he seemed to have made up his mind to be always as impassive as possible; so he never barked at anybody, for he seemed to be afraid of getting into some fresh trouble. He was nearly always lurking at the back of the buildings; and if anybody came near he rolled on his back at once, as though he meant to say, “Do what you like with me; I’ve not the least idea of resisting you.” And every convict, when the dog upset himself like that, would give him a passing obligatory kick, with “Ouh! the dirty brute!” But Snow dared not so much as give a groan; and if he was too much hurt, would only utter a little, dull, strangled yelp. He threw himself down just the same way before Bull or any other dog when he came to try his luck at the kitchen; and he would stretch himself out flat if a mastiff or any other big dog came barking at him. Dogs like submission and humility in other dogs; so the angry brute quieted down at once, and stopped short reflectively before the poor, humble beast, and then sniffed him curiously all over.

I wonder what poor Snow, trembling with fright, used to think at such moments. “Is this brigand of a fellow going to bite me?”—no doubt something like that. When he had sniffed enough at him, the big brute left him at once, having probably discovered nothing in particular. Snow used then to jump to his feet, and join a lot of four-footed fellows like him who were running down some yutchka or other.

Snow knew quite well that no yutchka would ever condescend to the like of him, that she was too proud for that, but it was some consolation to him in his troubles to limp after her. As to decent behaviour, he had but a very vague notion of any such thing. Being totally without any hope in his future, his highest aim was to get a bellyful of victuals, and he was cynical enough in showing that it was so.

Once I tried to caress him. This was such an unexpected and new thing to him that he plumped down on the ground quite helplessly, and quivered and whined in his delight. As I was really sorry for him I used to caress him often, so as soon as he caught sight of me he began to whine in a plaintive, tearful way. He came to his end at the back of the jail, in the ditch; some dogs tore him to pieces.

Koultiapka was quite a different style of dog. I don’t know why I brought him in from one of the workshops, where he was just born; but it gave me pleasure to feed him, and see him grow big. Bull took Koultiapka under his protection, and slept with him. When the young dog began to grow up, Bull was remarkably complaisant with him. He allowed the pup to bite his ears, and pull his skin with his teeth; he played with him as mature dogs are in the habit of doing with the youngsters. It was a strange thing, but Koultiapka never grew in height at all, only in length and breadth. His hide was fluffy and mouse-coloured; one of his ears hung down, while the other was always cocked up. He was, like all young dogs, ardent and enthusiastic, yelping with pleasure when he saw his master, and jumping up to lick his face precisely as if he said: “As long as he sees how delighted I am, I don’t care; let etiquette go to the devil!”

Wherever I was, at my call, “Koultiapka,” out he came from some corner, dashing towards me with noisy satisfaction, making a ball of himself, and rolling over and over. I was exceedingly fond of the little wretch, and I used to fancy that destiny had reserved for him nothing but joy and pleasure in this world of ours; but one fine day the convict Neustroief, who made women’s shoes and prepared skins, cast his eye on him; something had evidently struck him, for he called Koultiapka, felt his skin, and turned him over on the ground in a friendly way. The unsuspicious dog barked with pleasure, but next day he was nowhere to be found. I hunted for him for some time, but in vain; at last, after two weeks, all was explained. Koultiapka’s natural cloak had been too much for Neustroief, who had flayed him to make up with the skin some boots of fur-trimmed velvet ordered by the young wife of some official. He showed them me when they were done, their inside lining was magnificent; all Koultiapka, poor fellow!

A good many convicts worked at tanning, and often brought with them to the jail dogs with a nice skin, which soon were seen no more. They stole them or bought them. I remember one day I saw a couple of convicts behind the kitchens laying their heads together. One of them held in a leash a very fine black dog of particularly good breed. A scamp of a footman had stolen it from his master, and sold it to our shoemakers for thirty kopecks. They were going to hang it; that was their way of disposing of them; then they took the skin off, and threw the body into a ditch used for ejecta, which was in the most distant corner of the court, and which stank most horribly during the summer heats, for it was rarely seen to.

I think the poor beast understood the fate in store for him. It looked at us one after another in a distressed, scrutinising way; at intervals it gave a timid little wag with its bushy tail between its legs, as though trying to reach our hearts by showing us every confidence. I hastened away from the convicts, who finished their vile work without hindrance.

As to the geese of the establishment, they had established themselves there quite fortuitously. Who took care of them? To whom did they belong? I really don’t know; but they were a huge delight to our convicts, and acquired a certain fame throughout the town.

They had been hatched in the convict establishment somewhere, and their head-quarters was the kitchen, whence they emerged in gangs of their own, when the gangs of convicts went out to their work. But as soon as the drum beat and the prisoners massed themselves at the great gate, out ran the geese after them, cackling and flapping their wings, then they jumped one after the other over the elevated threshold of the gateway; while the convicts were at their work, the geese pecked about at a little distance from them. As soon as they had done and set out for the jail, again the geese joined the procession, and people who passed by would cry out, “I say, there are the prisoners with their friends, the geese!” “How did you teach them to follow you?” some one would ask. “Here’s some money for your geese,” another said, putting his hand in his pocket. In spite of their devotion to the convicts they had their necks twisted to make a feast at the end of the Lent of some year, I forget which.

Nobody would ever have made up his mind to kill our goat Vaska, unless something particular had happened; as it did. I don’t know how it got into our prison, or who had brought it. It was a white kid, and very pretty. After some days it had won all hearts, it was diverting and winning. As some excuse was needed for keeping it in the jail, it was given out that it was quite necessary to have a goat in the stables; but he didn’t live there, but in the kitchen principally; and after a while he roamed about all over the place. The creature was full of grace and as playful as could be, jumped on the tables, wrestled with the convicts, came when it was called, and was always full of spirits and fun.

One evening, the Lesghian Babaï, who was seated on the stone steps at the doors of the barracks among a crowd of other convicts, took it into his head to have a wrestling bout with Vaska, whose horns were pretty long.

They butted their foreheads against one another—that was the way the convicts amused themselves with him—when all of a sudden Vaska jumped on the highest step, lifted himself up on his hind legs, drew his fore-feet to him and managed to strike the Lesghian on the back of the neck with all his might, and with such effect that Babaï went headlong down the steps to the great delight of all who were by as well as of Babaï himself.

In a word, we all adored our Vaska. When he attained the age of puberty, a general and serious consultation was held, as the result of which, he was subjected to an operation which one of the prison veterinaries executed in a masterly manner.

“Well,” said the prisoners, “he won’t have any goat-smell about him, that’s one comfort.”

Vaska then began to lay on fat in the most surprising way. I must say that we fed him quite unconscionably. He became a most beautiful fellow, with magnificent horns, corpulent beyond anything. Sometimes as he walked, he rolled over on the ground heavily out of sheer fatness. He went with us out to work too, which was very diverting to the convicts and all others who saw; and everybody got to know Vaska, the jailbird.

When they worked at the river bank, the prisoners used to cut willow branches and other foliage, and gather flowers in the ditches to ornament Vaska. They used to twine the branches and flowers round his horns and decorate his body with garlands. Vaska then came back at the head of the gang in a splendid state of ornamentation, and we all came after in high pride at seeing him such a beauty.

This love for our goat went so far that prisoners raised the question, not a very wise one, whether Vaska ought not to have his horns gilded. It was a vain idea; nothing came of it. I asked Akim Akimitch, the best gilder in the jail, whether you really could gild a goat’s horns. He examined Vaska’s quite closely, thought a bit, and then said that it could be done, but that it would not last, and would be quite useless. So nothing came of it. Vaska would have lived for many years more, and, no doubt, have died of asthma at last, if, one day as he returned from work at the head of the convicts, his path had not been crossed by the Major, who was seated in his carriage. Vaska was in particularly gorgeous array.

“Halt!” yelled the Major. “Whose goat is that?”

They told him.

“What! a goat in the prison! and that without my leave? Sub-officer!”

The sub-officer received orders to kill the goat without a moment’s delay; flay him, and sell his skin; and put the proceeds to the prisoners’ account. As to the meat, he ordered it to be cooked with the convicts’ cabbage soup.

The occurrence was much discussed; the goat was much mourned; but nobody dared to disobey the Major. Vaska was put to death close to the ditch I spoke of just now. One of the convicts bought the carcase, paying a rouble and fifty kopecks. With this money white bread was bought for everybody. The man who had bought the goat sold him at retail in a roasted state. The meat was delicious.

We had also, during some time, in our prison a steppe eagle; a quite small species. A convict brought it in, wounded, half-dead. Everybody came flocking around it; it could not fly, its right wing being quite powerless; one of its legs was badly hurt. It gazed on the curious crowd wrathfully, and opened its crooked beak, as if prepared to sell its life dearly. When we had looked at him long enough, and the crowd dispersed, the lamed bird went off, hopping on one paw and flapping his wing, and hid himself in the most distant part of the place he could find; there he huddled himself in a corner against the palings.

During the three months that he remained in our court-yard he never came out of his corner. At first we went to look at him pretty often, and sometimes they set Bull at him, who threw himself forward with fury, but was frightened to go too near, which mightily amused the convicts. “A wild chap that! He won’t stand any nonsense!” But Bull after a while got over his fright, and began to worry him. When he was roused to it, the dog would catch hold of the bird’s bad wing, and the creature defended itself with beak and claws, and then got up closer into his corner with a proud, savage sort of demeanour, like a wounded king, fixing his eyes steadily on the fellows looking at his misery.

They tired of the sport after a while, and the eagle seemed quite forgotten; but there was some one who, every day, put close to him a bit of fresh meat and a vessel with some water. At first, and for several days, the eagle would eat nothing; at last, he made up his mind to take what was left for him, but he never could be got to take anything from the hand, or in public. Sometimes I succeeded in watching his proceedings at some distance.

When he saw nobody, and thought he was alone, he ventured upon leaving his corner and limping along the palisade for a dozen steps or so, then went back; and so forwards and backwards, precisely as if he were taking exercise for his health under medical orders. As soon as ever he caught sight of me he made for his corner as quickly as he possibly could, limping and hopping. Then he threw his head back, opened his mouth, ruffled himself, and seemed to make ready for fight.

In vain I tried to caress him. He bit and struggled as soon as he was touched. Not once did he take the meat I offered him, and all the time I remained by him he kept his wicked, piercing eye upon me. Lonely and revengeful he waited for death, defying, refusing to be reconciled with everything and everybody.

At last the convicts remembered him, after two months of complete forgetfulness, and then they showed a sympathy I did not expect of them. It was unanimously agreed to carry him out.

“Let him die, but let him die in freedom,” said the prisoners.

“Sure enough, a free and independent bird like that will never get used to the prison,” added others.

“He’s not like us,” said some one.

“Oh well, he’s a bird, and we’re human beings.”

“The eagle, pals, is the king of the woods,” began Skouratof; but that day nobody paid any attention to him.

One afternoon, when the drum beat for beginning work, they took the eagle, tied his beak (for he struck a desperate attitude), and took him out of the prison on to the ramparts. The twelve convicts of the gang were extremely anxious to know where he would go to. It was a strange thing: they all seemed as happy as though they had themselves got their freedom.

“Oh, the wretched brute. One wants to do him a kindness, and he tears your hand for you by way of thanks,” said the man who held him, looking almost lovingly at the spiteful bird.

“Let him fly off, Mikitka!”

“It doesn’t suit him being a prisoner; give him his freedom, his jolly freedom.”

They threw him from the ramparts on to the steppe. It was just at the end of autumn, a gray, cold day. The wind whistled on the bare steppe and went groaning through the yellow dried-up grass. The eagle made off directly, flapping his wounded wing, as if in a hurry to quit us and get himself a shelter from our piercing eyes. The convicts watched him intently as he went along with his head just above the grass.

“Do you see him, hey?” said one very pensively.

“He doesn’t look round,” said another; “he hasn’t looked behind once.”

“Did you happen to fancy he’d come back to thank us?” said a third.

“Sure enough, he’s free; he feels it. It’s freedom!”

“Yes, freedom.”

“You won’t see him any more, pals.”

“What are you about sticking there? March, march!” cried the escort, and all went slowly to their work.

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