THE MAJOR – From Dostoyevsky
He sometimes fell like a bombshell into the barracks in the middle of the night. If he noticed a prisoner asleep on his back or his left side, he awoke him and said to him: “You must sleep as I ordered!” The convicts detested him and feared him like the plague. His repulsive, crimson countenance made every one tremble. We all knew that the Major was entirely in the hands of his servant Fedka, and that he had nearly gone mad when his dog “Treasure” fell ill. He preferred this dog to every other living creature.
When Fedka told him that a convict, who had picked up some veterinary knowledge, made wonderful cures, he sent for him directly and said to him, “I entrust my dog to your care. If you cure ‘Treasure’ I will reward you royally.” The man, a very intelligent Siberian peasant, was indeed a good veterinary surgeon, but he was above all a cunning peasant. He used to tell his comrades long after the affair had taken place the story of his visit to the Major. “I looked at ‘Treasure,’ he was lying down on a sofa with his head on a white cushion. I saw at once that he had inflammation, and that he wanted bleeding. I think I could have cured him, but I said to myself, ‘What will happen if the dog dies? It will be my fault.’ ‘No, your noble highness,’ I said to him, ‘you have called me too late. If I had seen your dog yesterday or the day before, he would now be restored to health; but at the present moment I can do nothing. He will die.’ And ‘Treasure’ died.”
I was told one day that a convict had tried to kill the Major. This prisoner had for several years been noticed for his submissive attitude and also his silence. He was regarded even as a madman. As he possessed some instruction he passed his nights reading the Bible. When everybody was asleep he rose, climbed up on to the stove, lit a church taper, opened his Gospel and began to read. He did this for an entire year. One fine day he left the ranks and declared that he would not go to work. He was reported to the Major, who flew into a rage, and hurried to the barracks. The convict rushed forward and hurled at him a brick, which he had procured beforehand; but it missed him. The prisoner was seized, tried, and whipped–it was a matter of a few moments–carried to the hospital, and died there three days afterwards. He declared during his last moments that he hated no one; but that he had wished to suffer. He belonged to no sect of fanatics. Afterwards, when people spoke of him in the barracks, it was always with respect.
An exert taken from The House of the Dead or Prison Life in Siberia by Fyodor Dostoyevsky.