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In Sevastopol (or Sebastopol) Sketches Tolstoy examines the senselessness and vanity of war, the many aspects of the psychology of war, heroism, and the misleading presence of humanism in truces. The name originates from Sevastopol, a city in Crimea. Many of the episodes in Tolstoy's War and Peace are linked to the events described in these sketches.
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Published by Sovereign Classic
First published in 2014
Copyright © 2014 Sovereign
Design and Artwork © 2014 www.urban-pic.co.uk
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ISBN: 9781910558188 (ebk)
SEVASTOPOL IN DECEMBER 1854
IN MAY 1855
IN AUGUST 1855
SEVASTOPOL IN DECEMBER 1854
The dawn has just begun to tinge the horizon above the Sapoun hill. The dark-blue surface of the sea has already thrown off the shadows of night, and lies waiting the appearance of the first sunbeam to sparkle merrily. A cold mist blows in from the bay; there is no snow—all is black—but the sharp morning frost creaks underfoot and makes the face tingle, while only the distant ceaseless murmur of the sea, now and then overpowered by the thunder of the cannons in Sevastopol, breaks the stillness of the morning. All is quiet on the ships. It strikes eight bells.
On the North Side the activity of day begins gradually to replace the stillness of night: here some soldiers, with clanking muskets, pass to relieve guard; here a doctor is already hurrying to the hospital; here a soldier has crept out of his dug-out, washed his bronzed face with icy water, and, turning towards the reddening east, is now praying, rapidly crossing himself; there a high and heavy cart, drawn by camels, passes with creaking wheels towards the cemetery, where the blood-stained corpses that load it almost to the top are to be buried. Approaching the harbour, you are struck by a peculiar smell of coal, dampness, and meat. Thousands of different things—firewood, meat, gabions, flour, iron, and so forth—are lying in heaps near the harbour. Soldiers of various regiments, with or without bags and muskets, crowd around, smoking, scolding, or helping to load the steamer which lies with smoking funnel close to the wharf. Boats filled with people of all sorts—soldiers, seamen, tradesmen and women—come and go.
“To the Grafskaya? here you are, your honour,” and two or three old salts, getting out of their skiffs, offer their services.
You choose the nearest, step across the half-decayed carcass of a bay horse that lies in the mud beside the boat, and take your place at the rudder. The boat pulls off from the shore. Around you is the sea, now already glittering in the morning sun; before you, rowing steadily and silently, are the old sailor in a camel’s hair coat, and a flaxen-haired boy. You look at the huge bulk of the striped ships, scattered far and near over the Roadstead; at the ships’ boats, like black dots moving over the glittering azure; and, in another direction, at the handsome light-coloured buildings of the town, lit up by the rosy rays of the morning sun; and, again, at the frothy white outline of the breakwater, at the foam above the sunken ships, the ends of whose black masts sadly project here and there; at the enemy’s fleet swaying on the crystal horizon of the sea, and at the salt bubbles dancing on the eddying wash made by the oars. You listen to the steady murmur of voices which reaches you across the water, and to the majestic sounds of the firing which, it seems to you, now grows stronger in Sevastopol.
Some feeling of courage or pride surely enters your soul, and the blood flows faster in your veins, at the thought that you, too, are in Sevastopol.
“Your honour, you’re steering straight into the Constantine” says the old seaman, who has turned to see where you are steering.
“All her cannons are still on board,” says the boy, examining the ship as he rows past her.
“Well, of course; she’s a new ship. Kornílof himself lived on her,” remarks the old seaman, also looking at her.
“Look where it has burst!” says the boy, after a long silence, watching a small white cloud of spreading smoke, which has suddenly appeared high above the South Bay, accompanied by the sharp report of an exploding bomb.
“That’s him firing from the new battery to-day,” adds the old man calmly, spitting on his hand. “Now then, pull away, Míshka, we’ll get ahead of that longboat there.” And your skiff travels faster over the broad swells of the Roadstead, really overtakes the heavy long-boat, laden with sacks and rowed by clumsy sailors who do not keep stroke, and—making its way among all sorts of boats moored there—reaches the Grafskaya landing.
On the quay, soldiers in grey, sailors in black, and women in many colours throng noisily. Women are selling rolls, peasants with samovars are calling “hot sbíten,” and here, on the very first steps, lie rusty cannon-balls, bombs, grape-shot, and cast-iron cannons of various calibres. A little beyond is a large open space where huge beams, gun-carriages, and sleeping soldiers are lying; horses, carts, green cannons, ammunition-waggons, and stacked muskets are standing; soldiers, sailors, officers, women, children, and dealers are moving about, and here and there a Cossack and an officer ride along, or a general drives by in a trap. To the right the street is blocked by a barricade with small cannon mounted in embrasures, and near them sits a sailor smoking away at his pipe. To the left is a handsome building with a date in Roman figures on the frontal, and near it stand soldiers with blood-stained stretchers—everywhere you see unpleasant indications of a war camp. Your first impressions are sure to be most unpleasant: the strange combination of camp and urban life, of a fine town and a dirty bivouac, is not only ugly, but looks like horrible disorder; it even seems to you that every one is frightened and in commotion, not knowing what to do. But look closer into the faces of these people moving about you, and you will come to quite a different conclusion. Take, for instance, this convoy soldier going to water those three bay horses and muttering something to himself, and doing it all so quietly that it is evident he will not lose himself in this motley crowd (which does not even exist for him), but will fulfill his duty, whatever it may be—watering a horse, or helping to drag cannon—as calmly, confidently, and with as much equanimity as if it were all happening in Toula or Saransk. You will read the same in the face of that officer passing by in irreproachably white gloves; in the face of the sailor who sits smoking on the barricade; in the faces of the soldiers in the portico of what was once the Assembly Hall, and in the face of that young girl who, fearing to dirty her pink dress, jumps from stone to stone as she crosses the road.
Yes! disenchantment certainly awaits you if you are entering Sevastopol for the first time. You will look in vain, in any of the faces, for a trace of ardour, flurry, or even enthusiasm, determination, or readiness for death,—there is nothing of the kind. What you do see are every-day people, quietly occupied with their every-day business; so that perhaps you may reproach yourself for having felt undue enthusiasm, and may begin to doubt the justice of the ideas you had formed of the heroism of the defenders of Sevastopol, ideas founded on tales, descriptions, and the sights and sounds that reached you on the North Side of the Roadstead. But before giving way to such doubts, go to the bastions and see the defenders of Sevastopol where they are defending it; or, better still, go straight into that building opposite, formerly the Sevastopol Assembly Rooms, and in the portico of which the soldiers with stretchers are standing. There you will see the defenders of Sevastopol: you will see terrible, sad, solemn, and amusing, but astonishing and soul-elevating sights.
You enter the large Assembly Hall. At once, as soon as you open the door, the sight and smell of forty or fifty of the amputated and most severely wounded, some in beds but most on the floor, staggers you. Do not trust the feeling that detains you at the threshold; it is a bad feeling: go on; do not feel shame that you have come as if to look at the sufferers; do not hesitate to approach and speak to them. The unfortunate like to see a sympathetic human face, like to speak of their sufferings, and to hear words of love and pity. You pass between the rows of beds and look for some face less stern and full of suffering, that you can make up your mind to approach and speak to.
“Where are you wounded?” you hesitatingly and timidly ask an old and emaciated sailor, who, sitting up on his bed, is following you with kindly gaze as if inviting you to speak to him. I say “hesitatingly and timidly,” because suffering seems to inspire not only deep pity and dread of offending the sufferer, but also deep respect.
“In my leg,” replies the sailor, and you now notice by the way the folds of the blanket fall that he has lost one leg above the knee. “But the Lord be thanked,” he adds, “I am now getting ready to leave the hospital.”
“And is it long since you were wounded?”
“Well, it’s over five weeks now, your honour.”
“And are you still in pain?”
“No, I’ve no pain now; only when we have bad weather it feels as if the calf were aching, nothing else.”
“And how did it happen that you were wounded?”
“It was at the Fifth Bastion, your honour, during the first bombardment. I trained the gun, and was just stepping across to the next embrasure, when he struck me in the leg. It was just as if I had stumbled into a hole, and I look—and the leg’s gone!”
“Is it possible it did not hurt you then?”
“Nothing to speak of; it was only as if something hot had blown against my leg.”
“Well, and afterwards?”
“And afterwards it was nothing much either, only it did smart when they drew the skin together. The chief thing, your honour, is not to think: if you don’t think, it’s nothing much. It mostly all comes of thinking.”
At this moment a woman in a grey striped dress, with a black kerchief on her head, approaches you and joins in your conversation with the sailor. She begins to tell you about him: of his sufferings, the desperate condition he was in for four weeks; how, when he was wounded, he stopped his stretcher-bearers that he might see a volley from our battery; how the Grand-Dukes had spoken to him and given him twenty-five roubles, and he had told them he would like to return to the battery to teach the youngsters, if he could no longer work himself. As she says this all in a breath, the woman constantly looks from you to the sailor—who, with his face turned from her, is picking lint on his pillow—and her eyes are bright with some peculiar rapture.
“It’s my missus, your honour!” remarks the sailor, with a look that seems to say, ‘You must excuse her; it’s a woman’s way to say foolish things.’
You begin to understand the defenders of Sevastopol; without knowing why, you begin to feel ashamed of yourself before this man. To show your sympathy and admiration you are tempted to say too much; but the right words do not come, and you are dissatisfied with those that occur to you, so you bow down in silence before this quiet, unconscious greatness and firmness of spirit, that is ashamed to have its worth revealed.
“Well, God grant you a quick recovery,” you say, and you stop in front of another patient, who, lying on the floor, seems to be awaiting death in unendurable agony.
This is a fair-haired man, with a pale and swollen face. He is lying on his back, with his left arm thrown back in a way that shows cruel suffering. He breathes hoarsely and with difficulty through his parched, open mouth; the leaden, blue eyes are turned upwards; the blanket has slipped, and from under it the bandaged remains of his right arm sticks out
The oppressive, corpse-like smell strikes you more strongly, and the devouring inner fever burning in all the sufferer’s limbs seems to penetrate through you also.
“Is he unconscious?” you ask the woman, who has followed you and looks at you kindly as at a friend.
“No, he can still hear,—but he is very bad,” she adds in a whisper. “I gave him some tea to-day—though he is a stranger one must have pity—and he could hardly drink it.”
“How do you feel?” you ask him. The wounded man turns his eyes towards you, but neither sees you nor understands, and only says—
“My heart is on fire.”
A little further on you see an old soldier changing his shirt His face and body are a kind of brick-red, and he is as gaunt as a skeleton. One arm is quite gone, taken right off at the socket. He is sitting up firmly, and has recovered; but you can see by the dull, dead look of his eyes, by the terrible gauntness of his body, and by the wrinkles on his face, that the best part of this man’s life has been wasted by his sufferings.
On a bed on the other side you may see the pale, suffering, delicate face of a woman, her cheeks suffused with a feverish glow.
“That’s the wife of one of our sailors,’ says your guide. “She was hit in the leg by a bomb on the 5th; she was taking her husband’s dinner to him at the bastion.”
“Have they amputated it?”
“Yes, above the knee.”
Now, if your nerves are strong, go in at the door to the left; it is there they bandage and operate. There you will see doctors with pale, gloomy faces, and arms red with blood up to the elbows, busy by a bed on which lies a wounded man under chloroform. His eyes are open, and he utters, as if in delirium, incoherent, but sometimes simple and pathetic words. The doctors are engaged on the horrible but beneficent work of amputation. You will see the sharp, curved knife enter the healthy white flesh; you will see the wounded man come back to life with terrible heartrending screams and curses. You will see the doctor’s assistant toss the amputated arm into a corner, and you will see, in the same room, another wounded man on a stretcher, watching the operation, and writhing and groaning, not so much with physical pain, as with the mental torture of anticipation. You will see ghastly sights that will rend your soul; you will see war, not with its orderly, beautiful, and brilliant ranks, its music and beating drums, its waving banners, its , generals on prancing horses, but war in its real aspect of blood, suffering, and death. . . .
On coming out of this house of pain you will be sure to experience a sense of relief, you will take deeper breaths of the fresh air, and rejoice in the consciousness of your own health. But, at the same time, by the contemplation of these sufferings you will realise your own insignificance, and you will go to the bastions calmly and without hesitation. . .
“What matters the death and suffering of so insignificant a worm as I, compared to so many deaths, so much suffering? “But the sight of the clear sky, the brilliant sun, the beautiful town, the open church, and the soldiers moving in all directions, will soon bring your spirit back to its normal state of frivolity, its petty cares and absorption in the present. You may meet the funeral procession of an officer as it leaves the church, the pink coffin accompanied by waving banners and music, and the sound of firing from the bastions may reach your ears. But these things will not bring back your former thoughts. The funeral will seem a very beautiful military pageant; the sounds very beautiful warlike sounds; and neither to these sights nor to these sounds will you attach that clear and personal sense of suffering and death which came to you in the hospital.
Passing the church and the barricade, you enter that part of the town where the every-day life is most active. On both sides hang the signboards of shops and restaurants. Tradesmen, women with bonnets or kerchiefs on their heads, dandified officers: all speaks of the firmness, self-confidence, and security of the inhabitants.
If you care to hear the conversation of army and navy officers enter the restaurant on the right There you are sure to hear talk about last night, about Fanny, about that affair of the 24th, how dear and badly
“Things were confoundedly bad at our place today!” says, in a bass voice, a fair, beardless little naval officer with a green knitted scarf.
“Where’s that?” asks another.
“Oh, in the Fourth Bastion,” answers the young officer, and at the words “Fourth Bastion,” you will certainly look more attentively, and even with some respect, at this fair-complexioned officer. The excessive freedom of his manner, his gesticulations, and his loud voice and laugh, which before had seemed to you impudent, now appear to indicate that peculiarly combative frame of mind noticeable in some young men after they have been in danger; but still you expect him to tell how bad it was in the Fourth Bastion because of the bombs and bullets. Not at all! it was bad because of the mud. “One can scarcely get to the battery,” he continues, pointing to his boots, which are muddy even above the calves. “And I have lost my best gunner,” says another, “hit right in the forehead.” “Who’s that? Mituhin?” “No . . . but am I ever to have my veal? You rascal!” he adds, addressing the waiter. “Not Mituhin but Abramof—such a fine fellow! He was out in six sallies.”
At another corner of the table, with plates of cutlets and peas before them, and a bottle of sour Crimean wine called “Bordeaux,” sit two infantry officers. One of them, a young man with a red collar and two little stars on his cloak, is talking to the other, who has a black collar and no stars, about the Alma affair. The former has already been drinking, and by the pauses he makes, by the indecision in his face—expressing his doubt of being believed—and especially by the fact that his own part in the story is too important, and the affair is too dreadful, one sees that he is diverging considerably from the strict truth. But you do not care much for stories of this kind, which will long be current all over Russia; you want to get quickly to the bastions, especially to that Fourth Bastion about which you have been told so many and such different tales. When any one says, “I am going to the Fourth Bastion,” a slight agitation or a too marked indifference is always noticeable in him; if men are joking they say, “You should be sent to the Fourth Bastion.” When you meet some one carried on a stretcher, and ask, “Where from?” the answer usually is, “From the Fourth Bastion.” Two quite different opinions are current concerning this terrible bastion: that of those who have never been there, and who are convinced it is a certain grave for any one who goes there, and that of those who, like the fair-complexioned midshipman, live there, and who, when speaking of the Fourth Bastion, will tell you whether it is dry or muddy, and whether it is cold or warm in the dug-outs, and so forth.
During the half-hour you spent in the restaurant, the weather has changed. The mist that spread over the sea has gathered into dull, grey, moist clouds which hide the sun, and a kind of dismal sleet showers down and wets the roofs, the pavements, and the soldiers’ overcoats.
Passing another barricade, you go through some doors to the right and up a broad street Beyond this barricade the houses on both sides of the street are unoccupied: there are no signboards, the doors are boarded up, the windows smashed; here a comer of the walls is knocked down, and there a roof is broken in. The buildings look like old veterans who have borne much sorrow and privation; they even seem to gaze proudly and somewhat contemptuously at you. On the road you stumble over cannon-balls that lie about, and into holes, full of water, made in the stony ground by bombs. You meet and overtake detachments of soldiers, Cossacks, officers, and occasionally a woman or a child-only it will not be a woman wearing a bonnet, but a sailor’s wife wearing an old cloak and soldier’s boots. Farther along the same street, after you have descended a little slope, you will notice that there are now no houses, but only ruined walls in strange heaps of bricks, boards, clay and beams, and before you, up a steep hill, you see a black, untidy space cut up by ditches. This space you are approaching is the Fourth Bastion. . . . Here you will meet still fewer people and no women at all, the soldiers walk briskly by, traces of blood may be seen on the road, and you are sure to meet four soldiers carrying a stretcher, and on the stretcher probably a pale, yellow face and a blood-stained overcoat. If you ask, “ Where is he wounded?” the bearers, without looking at you, will answer crossly “in the leg” or “in the arm” if the man is not severely wounded; or they will remain sternly silent if no head is raised on the stretcher, and the man is either dead or badly wounded.
The whiz of cannon ball or bomb nearby, impresses you unpleasantly as you ascend the hill, and you at once understand the meaning of the sounds very differently from when they reached you in the town. Some peaceful and joyous memory will suddenly flash through your mind; consciousness of your own personality begins to supersede the activity of your observation: you are less attentive to all that is around you, and a disagreeable feeling of indecision suddenly seizes you. But, silencing this despicable little voice that has suddenly lifted itself within you at the sight of danger, you—especially after seeing a soldier run past you laughing, waving his arms, and slipping down the hill in the yellow mud—involuntarily expand your chest, raise your head higher, and clamber up the slippery clay hill. You have hardly gone a little way up, when bullets begin to whiz past you right and left, and you will, perhaps, consider whether you had not better walk inside the trench which runs parallel to the road; but the trench is full of such yellow, liquid, stinking mud, more than knee deep, that you are sure to choose the road, especially as everybody keeps to the road. After walking a couple of hundred yards, you come to a muddy place much cut up, surrounded by gabions, cellars, platforms, and dug-outs, and on which large cast-iron cannon are mounted and cannon balls lie piled in orderly heaps. All seems placed without any aim, connection, or order. Here a group of sailors are sitting in the battery; here, in the middle of the open space, half sunk in mud, lies a shattered cannon; and there a foot-soldier is crossing the battery, drawing his feet with difficulty out of the sticky mud. Everywhere, on all sides, and all about, you see bomb-fragments, unexploded bombs, cannon balls, and various traces of an encampment, all sunk in the liquid, sticky mud. You think you hear the thud of a cannon ball not far off, and you seem to hear the different sounds of bullets all around—some humming like bees, some whistling, and some rapidly flying past with a shrill screech like the string of some instrument You hear the awful boom of a shot which sends a shock all through you, and seems most dreadful.
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