I recollect how we went at double-quick through the forest; how the bullets hummed; how the branches nipped off by them kept falling around us; how we tore through the hawthorn bushes. The firing became more rapid. As we came to the outskirt of the woods, something red, flashing here and there, appeared. Siderof, a little young soldier of Company I.—it occurred to me, "how did he happen to be in our line?"—suddenly sat down on the ground and gazed at me with great startled eyes. A stream of blood gushed from his mouth.
Yes, I recollect that distinctly. I recollect also how, just as we reached the outskirt of the woods, I saw him in the thick bushes.
He was a huge, stout Turk; nevertheless, weak and thin as I was, I ran straight for him. There was a sharp report, something huge seemed to fly past me; there was a roaring in my ears.
I said to myself, "He must have fired at me." With a scream of terror he backed into a thick hawthorn bush. He might have slipped round it, but his fear took away his presence of mind and he entangled himself in the spines of the prickly branches. With one blow I knocked his gun out of his hands; with one quick thrust I struck him with the bayonet. There was a sound between that of a roar and a groan.
Then I rushed forward. Our men were cheering. Some were falling, some were firing.
I recollect that I, like the rest, fired several shots, as I emerged from the forest upon the level ground. Suddenly "Hurrah" sounded louder, and forming in line we moved forward. That is to say, not we, but ours, for I was left behind. It seemed strange to me. It was still stranger when suddenly everything vanished; all the shouts and sounds of musketry grew still. I heard absolutely nothing, but I caught a glimpse of something blue; it must have been the sky. Then that also disappeared.
Never had I found myself in such a strange situation. There I was lying on my belly with nothing but a little mound of earth before me. A few scattered blades of grass, some ants crawling down one of them, a scattered heap of dust from the mouldered grass of by-gone years,—that constituted my whole world. And I surveyed it with only one eye, the other being held shut by some firm pressure, which must have been from the branch on which my head was resting.
It was fearfully awkward, and I tried but absolutely failed to understand why I could not move. Thus passed some little time. I heard the creaking of the grasshoppers, the buzzing of a bee. Nothing else. Finally I made an effort, freed my right arm from under me; and by dint of persistent effort with both hands I tried to get to my knees.
Something sharp and swift, like a flash of lightning, darted through my whole body from my knees to my chest and head, and once more I fall back. Again, darkness; again, nothingness.
I came to my senses. Why did I see stars shining so brilliantly in the black-blue Bulgarian sky? But why am I not in my tent? Why should I have left it? I make a movement and experience exquisite pain in my legs.
Yes, I was wounded in the battle. Dangerously or not? I of my legs where the pain was. And in truth both my right leg and my left were covered with coagulated blood. When I touch them with my hands, the pain is sharper. The pain is like the tooth-ache: steady, searching the very soul. There is a ringing in my ears; my head has grown heavy. I have a dim, confused consciousness that I am wounded in both legs.
But what does it mean? Why have they not come for me? Can the Turks have defeated us? I begin to recall what happened to me; at first confusedly, then more distinctly, and I make up my mind that we were not defeated at all. Because I fell; that, however, I do not recollect; I remember how we all dashed forward, but I found it impossible to run; and then nothing was before my eyes except something blue,—and I fell on the level ground at the top of the hillock. Our little battalion commander pointed to this piece of level ground. "Boys, we shall get there!" he cried, in his ringing voice. And we were there; of course we were not beaten!
Then why did they not come and get me? Here on this level meadow, it is all open ground, perfectly exposed. Why, evidently, I am not the only one lying here: there was such rapid firing.
I must lift my head and look around. It is easier to do that now than it was at first, because at the time when I began to get my senses and noticed the grass and the ants crawling head down, and when I tried to lift myself I did not fall in my former position but turned over on my back. That was why I could see those stars.
I lift myself and sit up. It is hard work when both legs are helpless. Sometimes I despaired of success; but at length, with tears in my eyes, caused by my anguish, I manage to sit up.
Over my head is a patch of black-blue sky with one big star and a few lesser ones blazing in it. Around me is something black and high. It is the bushes. I am in the bushes: they failed to find me!
I feel the very roots of my hair rising on my head.
Now, how was it that I came to my senses in the bushes when I was shot on the meadow? It must have been that while beside myself with agony from my wound, I crawled here. But it is strange that now I cannot even move when at that time I had the power of dragging myself as far as these bushes! But possibly at that time there was only one wound and another shot had reached me at this place.
Pallid, rosy streaks seemed to gather around me. The great star paled; some of the lesser ones vanished.
That is the moon rising. How lovely it is at home now! . . .
Strange noises reach my ears. It seems as though some one were groaning. Yes, that is a groan. Can some one have also been forgotten near me with broken legs or with a bullet in the body? No! those groans are so close to me, but apparently there is no one in my vicinity. . . .
Good heavens! why it is myself! Gentle, pitiful groans. How, indeed, can I be suffering so atrociously? Yet so it is. But I do not realize the full force of this agony because my head is clouded, it is like lead. It were better to lie down again and fall asleep, sleep, sleep. . . . But when shall I waken?
At the very instant that I was making up my mind to lie down, a wide pale streak of moonlight clearly illuminated the place where I was lying, and I catch sight of something dark and large only five paces from me. The moonlight glints on what seems like metallic points. They are buttons or equipment. It is either a corpse or some one wounded.
No matter, I lie down. . . .
No, it is impossible. Our men cannot have gone. They are here; they have defeated the Turk and have rested in this position. But why are there no sounds of voices, no crackling of camp-fires? Of course it is because I am too weak to hear anything. They certainly are here.
Wild, senseless, hoarse wails burst from my lungs, and there is no response. They are borne afar through the night-air. Utter silence else!
Only the incessant chirping of the cricket. The moon looks pityingly down upon me with her round face.
If he were merely wounded, such a cry would wake him. It is a dead body. One of our men or a Turk? Ah! my God, what difference does it make? And sleep descends upon my heated eyes.
I am lying with eyes shut though it is some time since I woke.
I have no desire to open my eyes because I feel through the closed lids the sunlight. If I open my eyes the light will pain them. Besides, it is better not to move. . . . Yesterday (let me see, was it yesterday?) I was wounded; four and twenty hours have passed; in another day and night I shall be dead. Very well. It is best not to move. Let my body be motionless. How good it would be to cease, also, all brain-work; but there is no means of stopping it. Thoughts, recollections crowd through my head. However, all this is not for long; it will soon be over.
Only in the newspapers there will be a few lines to the effect that the loss on our side was insignificant, a few wounded. One soldier, Ivanof, from the volunteers killed. No, they will not even give the name; it will simply say one private, just as though it were a dog. . . . A complete picture clearly flashes into my mind. That was long, long ago; but then, all things, all my life, that life of mine up to the time when I found myself lying here with broken legs, was so long, long ago. . . .
I remember I was going down the street; a knot of people blocked my way. The crowd was standing and gazing in silence at something whitish in color, covered with blood, piteously whining. It was a pretty little dog; a horse-car had run over it. It was dying just as I am now. A yard-keeper forced his way through the throng, took the dog by the neck and carried it away. The throng dispersed.
Is no one going to carry me away? No! Lie here and die! And yet how lovely life is! . . . On the day when the misfortune happened to the dog I was happy. I had been drinking, and that was the reason. Ye recollections, torment me not! Leave me in peace! Past happiness, present torments. . . .
Let only physical anguish be mine. Let these recollections torment me not, for they involuntarily make me draw comparisons. Ah, regret! regret! thou art worse than wounds.
But, it is growing hot. The sun scorches. I open my eyes, I see the same bushes, the same sky, only save that it is seen by daylight. And here also is my neighbor. Yes, it is a Turk, a corpse. What a big man! I recognize him. It is the very one whom . . .
Before me lies the man whom I had killed. Why did I kill him?
He lies there dead, blood-stained. Why did Fate bring him here? Who was he? Perhaps he, like myself, had an aged mother. Long will she sit each afternoon by the door of her wretched hut and gaze out into the far-off North. Her darling son, her supporter, her bread-winner, will not come.
And I? How is it with me? . . . I would even change places with him! How fortunate he is. He hears nothing; he feels no pain from his wounds or deathly anguish of mind or the heat. The bayonet went straight to his heart. There in his uniform is the great black rent; there is blood around it.
I did that!
I had no wish to do it. I had no grudge against any one when we were sent out to fight. How far from me was the thought that I should have to kill any people! I simply imagined that I should have to expose my breast to the bullets. And I went and so I did.
Well, and what of it? Fool, fool! And this unfortunate fellah (he wears the Egyptian uniform)—he was even less blameworthy than I. Before he was packed with the others on a steamer, like herrings in a cask, and brought to Constantinople, he had never heard of Russia or Bulgaria. He was ordered to come here and he came. If he had resisted, they would have beaten him with a cane or perhaps some pasha would have struck him down with a shot from his revolver. He made the long, hard journey from Stambul to Rushchuk. We attacked, he defended himself. But when he saw that we strange people, not afraid of his patented English rifles, Peabody or Martini, kept pressing faster and faster forward, he lost heart. Just as he was going to run, a little man, whom he might have killed with a single blow of his black fist, ran up to him and thrust a bayonet into his heart.
Wherein was he to blame?
And wherein am I to blame even though I killed him? Wherein am I to blame? Why am I so tormented with thrist? Thirst! Who knows what that word means? Even when we were on our way through Roumania, making forced marches of fifty versts while the mercury stood in the nineties, even then I had no idea of what it really meant. Ah, if only some one would come! My God! in that huge canteen that he has there is probably water! But I must get to it! At the cost of what pains! Yet get to it I will!
I try to crawl. My legs are useless; my enfeebled hands scarcely serve to move my helpless body. It is only twelve or fourteen feet to the body, but for me it is more—no, not more but worse—than ten miles. Nevertheless, it is necessary to crawl. My throat burns as if it were on fire. And without water, death would come all the sooner. Yet perchance. . . .
And I drag myself along. My legs catch on the ground and every slightest motion causes insufferable anguish. I scream, I scream and wail, and yet I continue to crawl. At last I attain to it. Here is the canteen. There is water in it, and what a quantity! It seems as if it must be half full. Oh, water enough to last me a long time . . . till death itself!
My thirst, thou hast saved me! I began to unscrew the top, resting on one elbow, and, suddenly losing my balance, I fell face down on the chest of my preserver. Already my senses perceived a strong odor of decay.
I tasted the water. It was warm but not spoiled, and besides there was plenty of it. I should live for several days yet. I remember what I used to read in the "Physiology of Every-Day Life." It said that a man could live for more than a week without food provided he had water to drink. Yes, and there was a story in it of a suicide who determined to starve himself to death. He lived for a long time because he drank water.
Well, what of it? Suppose I live five or six days longer, what will happen? Our troops have gone, the Bulgarians have dispersed. There is no highway near. It is all the same,—death. Except that instead of a death agony lasting three days, I shall have made it last a week.
Would it not be better to end all?
My neighbor's rifle is lying beside him,—a splendid English weapon. I have only to stretch out my hand; then one flash and all is over. The cartridges have rolled out, a lot of them. He did not have time to fire them all.
Shall I put an end to it or wait? Wait for what? Deliverance? Death? Wait until the Turks come and begin to strip the skin off from my wounded legs? Better myself. . . .
No, there is no use to lose courage; I will struggle till the end, so long as my strength holds out. If they find me, I am saved. Perhaps the bones are not injured; they will cure me. I shall see my country, my mother, Masha. . . .
Heavens! pray they do not know the whole truth! Let them suppose that I was killed instantly. What would they do if they knew that I had been suffering tortures for two, three, four days?
My head whirled; my journey across to my neighbor had tired me out. And here was still that terrible odor! How black he has grown . . . what will he be to-morrow or the day after? And here I lie simply because I have no force left to drag myself away. I will rest awhile and crawl back to my old place. By the way, the wind blows from that direction and will carry away from me that ill smell.
I lie in a state of absolute exhaustion. The sun scorches my face and hands. Impossible to protect them. Would that night would come soon.
Let me see, this will be the second!
My thoughts become entangled and I forget myself.
I must have slept long, because when I awoke it was already night. No change; my wounds still smart as before; my neighbor lay just as huge and motionless as ever.
I cannot help thinking of him. Can it be that I have thrown away all that was sweet and dear, have travelled a thousand miles from home, have suffered from hunger and cold, have been scorched with the sun; can it be that I lie here in all this anguish simply in order that this unhappy wretch might cease to live? And have I done anything at all advantageous for the ends of war beside this murder?
Murder! murderer? . . . And who? . . . I!
When I first proposed to enlist, my mother and Masha did not attempt to dissuade me, though they shed tears over me. Blinded by an idea, I did not see their tears. I did not realize, as I do now, what I was bringing upon those nearest and dearest to me. But why indulge in recollection? it will not cause the past to return.
And what a strange way of looking at my exploit many of my acquaintances seemed to have. "There! the foolish fellow! He got himself unwittingly into a pretty scrape!" How can they say such a thing? How reconcile such words with their representations of heroism, of patriotism, and other things of the sort? Why, in their eyes I represented all these virtues, and yet, I am a foolish fellow!
And so I came to Kishenef. They put a knapsack on my back and loaded me down with all sorts of military equipments, and forth I marched with thousands of others, many of whom, like myself, enlisted as volunteers. The rest would have stayed at home if they had been allowed. But they marched just the same as we, "the sensible ones" did; they marched the thousand miles and fought just as we did, perhaps even better. They fulfilled their obligations, in spite of the fact that they would have thrown down their arms and quitted the service, if only they were permitted.
A faint morning breeze sprung up. The bushes gently waved, a sleepy bird fluttered its wings. The stars began to disappear. The dark-blue sky became luminous; tender, feathery clouds swept over; a grayish mist rose from the ground.
Thus broke the third day of my—what shall I call it? Life? the last agony?
The third. . . . How many more are still left? At most not many. I have grown very weak and apparently cannot get farther away from the corpse. It and I will soon be alike, and then we shall no longer be disagreeable to each other.
I must have a drink of water. I will drink only three times a day: morning, noon, and night.
The sun has risen. His huge disk, crossed and intersected by the dark branches of the bushes, is as red as blood. It promises to be hot to-day. Neighbor, how is it with thee? Thou art dreadful by this time.
Yes, he was dreadful. His hair had begun to fall off. His skin, naturally dark, had turned wan and yellowish; his face was so swollen and distended that it was cracked even to the ear. It was already a mass of loathsome worms. His whole body was puffed out into a festering mass. What will become of him in the hot sun to-day?
It is unendurable to be lying so near to him. I must crawl away though it be never so small a distance. But is it in my power? I am still able to raise my arm to open the canteen, to drink; but can I lift my heavy, immovable body? Still I will try to crawl away, though it be only a little at a time, though it were only a foot an hour.
Thus the whole morning passes with me in this position. The agony is intense, but what is that to me now? No longer can I realize, can I imagine, the sensation of a well man. I have become entirely wonted to pain. During this morning I have managed to drag myself about fourteen feet, and here I am again in my former place. But it is only for a short time that I have the luxury of pure air, if any air can be considered pure that is within a radius of half a dozen paces of a rotting body.
The wind changed and brought to me such a disgusting odor that I was nauseated. My empty stomach painfully and spasmodically retched. It seemed as though all my vitals were being torn out. And the putrid pestilential air still blows over me.
I fell into a state of despair and wept.
Perfectly exhausted, crazy with despair, I lay almost unconscious. Suddenly . . . was it not the delusion of a disordered imagination? I think not.
Yes, it was the sound of voices. The trampling of horses' hoofs, the voices of men. I almost cried out, but restrained myself. Well, supposing it were Turks? What then? To the torments already experienced others still more horrible would be added, such as makes the hair stand on end even when you read about them in the papers. They skin their prisoners alive; they hold wounded limbs over slow fires! . . . All right if that were all; but they are so inventive! Were it not better to end my life even at their hands than perish here? And perhaps it may be our men? Oh, cursed bushes! Why have you thrown about me such a thick hedge. There is no seeing through them! only in one place something like a little window among the branches gives me a view out into the hollow. There I think is the brook from which we got a drink just before the battle. Yes, there was a huge slab of sandstone laid across the brook like a bridge.
They are apparently crossing over it now. The voices have ceased. I cannot distinguish the language in which they were talking: my hearing also has grown feeble.
Heavens! if they were our men.
I will shout to them; they will hear me even from the brook. That is better than to run the risk of falling into the hands of the bashi-bazuks. Why are they so long in coming?
I am tormented with impatience; I no longer notice even the odor of the corpse, though it is just as foul as ever.
And suddenly in the break in the bushes appear the Cossacks! the blue uniforms, the red stripes, the pikes. A whole company of them. At their head on a splendid horse a black-bearded officer. As soon as the company broke through the bushes, he turned round on his saddle and shouted,—
"Wait! wait! for God's sake! Help! Help! comrades!" I cried. But the trampling of the vigorous horses, the clanking of the sabres, and the loud voices of the Cossacks drowned my feeble wail: they do not hear me!
Oh, accursed! And I fell back motionless, face down on the ground, and began to sob again. The canteen tipped over and the waters flowed out,—my life, my salvation, the postponement of my death! But I noticed it only when it was all lost except a half glass; all the rest has soaked into the dry, parched ground.
Can I give any idea of the numbness that seized upon me after that horrible accident? I lay motionless with half-closed eyes. The wind was constantly changing that day, and at one moment I breathed a fresh, pure air, and the next the odor of decay was borne to me.
By the end of the day my neighbor had grown horrible beyond description. Once, when I opened my eyes to look at him, I was striken with terror. He had no longer any face! It had slipped from the bones. That terrible bony smile, that perpetual grin never before seemed so repulsive, so frightful, though more than once I had held a skull in my hands, and even dissected human heads. This skeleton in its bright-buttoned uniform made me shudder. "This," I said to myself, "is war." This is the emblem of it.
And the sun scorches and bakes as hotly as ever. My hands and face have been long burned and blistered. I have drunk my last drop of water. My thirst was so cruel that, though I resolved to drink only a little swallow, I finished it at a draught. Ah! why did I not shout to the Cossacks when they were so near to me? Even if they had been Turks, that were better than this. They might have tortured me for an hour or two, but now I have no idea how long I shall have to suffer here.
My mother! my dear mother! How thou wouldst tear thy gray hair, how thou wouldst beat thy head against the wall, how thou wouldst curse the day that thou didst bring me forth, how thou wouldst curse the whole world to think of the suffering that men undergo in war! But thou and Masha, of course, have not heard of my anguish. Farewell, mother; farewell, my sweetheart, my bride! Ah, what agony, what torment! Something goes through my heart!
Once more that poor little dog! The yard-keeper had no mercy on it as he beat its head against the wall and flung it into a pit where garbage was thrown and into which slops were drained. But it was still alive, and it suffered for a whole day. But I am more unfortunate than the dog, for here I have been suffering for three whole days. To-morrow will be the fourth, then will come the fifth, then the sixth. . . . Death, where art thou? Come! come! Take me!
But death does not come and does not take me; and here I lie under this fearful sun and not a drop of water to quench my fiery thirst, and the corpse is poisoning me. It has entirely disintegrated. Myriads of worms are dropping from it. How they swarm! When he is entirely destroyed and nothing but his bones and uniform are left, then it will be my turn, and I shall be like him.
The day passes, the night passes, still the same. The morning dawns, still the same, another day goes. The bushes keep whispering and whispering, just as though they were talking softly. "Here you'll perish, perish, perish!" they whisper. "What's to be seen here? What's to be seen here, seen here?" reply the bushes on the other side.
"What's the use? What's to be seen here?" says a loud voice near me.
I gave a start and came to my senses. From among the bushes gazed the kind blue eyes of our corporal Yakovlef.
"Spades here!" he cried. "Here are a couple more: one, ours; the other, theirs."
"I don't want a spade; I don't want to be buried! I'm alive," I try to cry, but only a weak groan comes from my parched lips.
"Heavens! he can't be alive, can he? Barin Ivanof! Boys, come here, our barin is alive! Bring the surgeon quick!"
In half a minute they are pouring water into my mouth, brandy and something else. Then there comes a blank!
Swinging along in step, the bearers carry the stretcher. This measured motion lulls me. Sometimes I sleep, then I wake again. My bandaged wounds no longer pain me. An unspeakably comfortable sensation pervades my whole body. . . .
"Ha-a-alt! Set stretcher! Fou-rth relie-f! Rea-dy! Forward ma-a-arch!"
That command was given by Piotr Ivanuitch, our hospital officer, a tall, thin, and very good-natured man. He was so tall that when I turned my eyes in his direction I could constantly see his face with its thin long beard, and his shoulders, although the stretcher is borne on the shoulders of four full-grown men.
"Piotr Ivanuitch!" I whisper.
"What is it, my boy?"
Piotr Ivanuitch bent over me.
"Piotr Ivanuitch, what does the doctor say? Shall I die soon?"
"That'll do, Ivanof! you aren't going to die. Why, all your bones are whole. What a lucky fellow! Neither bones nor arteries touched. And how did you live these three days and a half? What did you have to eat?"
"Did you have nothing to drink?"
"I got the Turk's canteen. Piotr Ivanuitch, I can't talk now. Wait till by and by!"
"Well, God bless you, my boy, have a nap!"
Again sleep, forgetfulness.
I came to in the division hospital. Above me stood the doctor, surgeons, the sisters of mercy, and beside them, I see the well-known face of a famous Petersburg professor bending over my legs. His hands were bloody. He busied himself with my legs for a short time and then turned to me.
"Well, you had a narrow escape, young man. You will live. We have only taken off one leg; that's a mere trifle. Can you talk?"
I could talk, and I told him all that I have written down here.