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Hang Him by Ivan Turgenev

 

'It happened in 1803,' began my old acquaintance, 'not long before Austerlitz. The regiment in which I was an officer was quartered in Moravia.

'We had strict orders not to molest or annoy the inhabitants; as it was, they regarded us very dubiously, though we were supposed to be allies.

'I had a servant, formerly a serf of my mother's, Yegor, by name. He was a quiet, honest fellow; I had known him from a child, and treated him as a friend.

'Well, one day, in the house where I was living, I heard screams of abuse, cries, and lamentations; the woman of the house had had two hens stolen, and she laid the theft at my servant's door. He defended himself, called me to witness.... "Likely he'd turn thief, he, Yegor Avtamonov!" I assured the woman of Yegor's honesty, but she would not listen to me.

'All at once the thud of horses' hoofs was heard along the street; the commander-in-chief was riding by with his staff. He was riding at a walking pace, a stout, corpulent man, with drooping head, and epaulettes hanging on his breast.

'The woman saw him, and rushing before his horse, flung herself on her knees, and, bare-headed and all in disorder, she began loudly complaining of my servant, pointing at him.

'"General!" she screamed; "your Excellency! make an inquiry! help me! save me! this soldier has robbed me!"

'Yegor stood at the door of the house, bolt upright, his cap in his hand, he even arched his chest and brought his heels together like a sentry, and not a word! Whether he was abashed at all the general's suite halting there in the middle of the street, or stupefied by the calamity facing him, I can't say, but there stood my poor Yegor, blinking and white as chalk!

'The commander-in-chief cast an abstracted and sullen glance at him, growled angrily, "Well?" ... Yegor stood like a statue, showing his teeth as if he were grinning! Looking at him from the side, you'd say the fellow was laughing!

'Then the commander-in-chief jerked out: "Hang him!" spurred his horse, and moved on, first at a walking-pace, then at a quick trot. The whole staff hurried after him; only one adjutant turned round on his saddle and took a passing glance at Yegor.

'To disobey was impossible.... Yegor was seized at once and led off to execution.

'Then he broke down altogether, and simply gasped out twice, "Gracious heavens! gracious heavens!" and then in a whisper, "God knows, it wasn't me!"

'Bitterly, bitterly he cried, saying good-bye to me. I was in despair. "Yegor! Yegor!" I cried, "how came it you said nothing to the general?"

'"God knows, it wasn't me!" the poor fellow repeated, sobbing. The woman herself was horrified. She had never expected such a dreadful termination, and she started howling on her own account! She fell to imploring all and each for mercy, swore the hens had been found, that she was ready to clear it all up....

'Of course, all that was no sort of use. Those were war-times, sir! Discipline! The woman sobbed louder and louder.

'Yegor, who had received absolution from the priest, turned to me.

'"Tell her, your honour, not to upset herself.... I've forgiven her."'

My acquaintance, as he repeated this, his servant's last words, murmured, 'My poor Yegor, dear fellow, a real saint!' and the tears trickled down his old cheeks.

August 1879.