The Horse-Stealers and Other Stories
A Dead Body
A STILL August night. A mist is rising slowly from the fields and casting an opaque veil
over everything within eyesight. Lighted up by the moon, the mist gives the impression at
one moment of a calm, boundless sea, at the next of an immense white wall. The air is
damp and chilly. Morning is still far off. A step from the bye-road which runs along the
edge of the forest a little fire is gleaming. A dead body, covered from head to foot with
new white linen, is lying under a young oak-tree. A wooden ikon is lying on its breast.
Beside the corpse almost on the road sits the "watch"--two peasants performing one of
the most disagreeable and uninviting of peasants' duties. One, a tall young fellow with a
scarcely perceptible moustache and thick black eyebrows, in a tattered sheepskin and
bark shoes, is sitting on the wet grass, his feet stuck out straight in front of him, and is
trying to while away the time with work. He bends his long neck, and breathing loudly
through his nose, makes a spoon out of a big crooked bit of wood; the other--a little
scraggy, pock-marked peasant with an aged face, a scanty moustache, and a little goat's
beard--sits with his hands dangling loose on his knees, and without moving gazes
listlessly at the light. A small camp-fire is lazily burning down between them, throwing a
red glow on their faces. There is perfect stillness. The only sounds are the scrape of the
knife on the wood and the crackling of damp sticks in the fire.
"Don't you go to sleep, Syoma . . ." says the young man.
"I . . . I am not asleep . . ." stammers the goat-beard.
"That's all right. . . . It would be dreadful to sit here alone, one would be frightened. You
might tell me something, Syoma."
"You are a queer fellow, Syomushka! Other people will laugh and tell a story and sing a
song, but you--there is no making you out. You sit like a scarecrow in the garden and roll
your eyes at the fire. You can't say anything properly . . . when you speak you seem
frightened. I dare say you are fifty, but you have less sense than a child. Aren't you sorry
that you are a simpleton?"
"I am sorry," the goat-beard answers gloomily.
"And we are sorry to see your foolishness, you may be sure. You are a good-natured,
sober peasant, and the only trouble is that you have no sense in your head. You should
have picked up some sense for yourself if the Lord has afflicted you and given you no
understanding. You must make an effort, Syoma. . . . You should listen hard when
anything good's being said, note it well, and keep thinking and thinking. . . . If there is
any word you don't understand, you should make an effort and think over in your head in
what meaning the word is used. Do you see? Make an effort! If you don't gain some
sense for yourself you'll be a simpleton and of no account at all to your dying day."