Leonid Leonov: Tell me, is it right to kill – in war or anyhow?
From The Thief (1927)
Translated by Hubert Butler
“…They used to practice the read death in our parts. Have you heard of it?”
“I read about it in some book…the old men used to be suffocated with a red bolster…some kind of sect, wasn’t it?”
“Not only old men,” Agey waved his hand and cast down his eyes. “But the folk in our parts are quiet and peaceable. The hares come and play close to the houses. The bolster business…that all happened in old times…in any case, what do the bolsters matter? What’s the difference whether one smothers a man with a bolster or shoots him with a gun or hacks him to pieces with a sword or poisons him with poison gas? One might even say it’s softer with a bolster: it’s even a pleasure, if the other party’s agreeable. They say that the professor who invented this poison gas hasn’t been shot yet, but he is still running about…”
“You’re a brainy chap with those spectacles. Tell me, is it right to kill – in war or anyhow? While my father had me in his pocket, I used to think that one might kill anything up to a mouse, but nothing higher than that. I had wisdom bitten into my ear. I was a dreamy chap…In the night I used to get up and read, but in the war my mind went off the rails. It was during an attack – a hellish spot called Ferdinand’s Nose, a hill full of holes. I went ahead and cut the wire in two and ran in, and up against me came an Austrian officer with a red nose. He rushed at me with his sword, but I took a jab at him with my bayonet. Then I lifted up the butt of my rifle, and he looked at me as you are doing now, in a pleading kind of way. I saw his eyes growing dull. What did they want, Fyodor Fyodorich? And it’s true if a chap hits you with the butt of a rifle, it isn’t in the butt the death is, but in his eyes. When he winked at me I thought…’You’re cheating,’ though I. ‘You want to get into me with your eyes.’…And I screwed up my eyes, too.”
“It’s unbearably hot here,” murmured Firsov, who was streaming with sweat, and he got up from his chair.
“Sit down!” Agey ordered him, and pushed his knees down. “A little afterward there was a parade. Our general gave me a cross and praised me, and I began to think of the young hawk. ‘But, your serene excellency,’ said I. “I killed a man.’ I was stupid, I suppose, eh? I’m almost ashamed of telling it. And he screamed in my face: ‘You fool! If anyone gives you anything, well, you’ve earned it.’ For this bit of back chat I was under arrest for three days – quite the hero! – but I didn’t care a damn! ‘That’s easy work,’ thought I, ‘and I get distinguished for it into the bargain!’ In the end I got a taste for it. I did in seven of them with my bayonet at every attack, and I longed for each attack as if it was Easter Sunday. Once I hacked a man’s hand off, and brought it to the commandant. Another time I killed a dead man a second time: he was sitting by a gun carriage, and I gave him one just for the love of the thing. And when I’d learned to stomach it, I had a high old time with medals and crosses…”