List Of Contents | Contents of Vaninka, by Alexandre Dumas, Pere
Next Page > >


By Alexander Dumas, Pere


About the end of the reign of the Emperor Paul I--that is to say,
towards the middle of the first year of the nineteenth century--just
as four o'clock in the afternoon was sounding from the church of St.
Peter and St. Paul, whose gilded vane overlooks the ramparts of the
fortress, a crowd, composed of all sorts and conditions of people,
began to gather in front of a house which belonged to General Count
Tchermayloff, formerly military governor of a fair-sized town in the
government of Pultava.  The first spectators had been attracted by
the preparations which they saw had been made in the middle of the
courtyard for administering torture with the knout.  One of the
general's serfs, he who acted as barber, was to be the victim.

Although this kind of punishment was a common enough sight in St.
Petersburg, it nevertheless attracted all passers-by when it was
publicly administered.  This was the occurrence which had caused a
crowd, as just mentioned, before General Tchermayloff's house.

The spectators, even had they been in a hurry, would have had no
cause to complain of being kept waiting, for at half-past four a
young man of about five-and-twenty, in the handsome uniform of an
aide-de-camp, his breast covered with decorations, appeared on the
steps at the farther end of the court-yard in front of the house.
These steps faced the large gateway, and led to the general's

Arrived on the steps, the young aide-de-camp stopped a moment and
fixed his eyes on a window, the closely drawn curtains of which did
not allow him the least chance of satisfying his curiosity, whatever
may have been its cause.  Seeing that it was useless and that he was
only wasting time in gazing in that direction, he made a sign to a
bearded man who was standing near a door which led to the servants'
quarters.  The door was immediately opened, and the culprit was seen
advancing in the middle of a body of serfs and followed by the
executioner.  The serfs were forced to attend the spectacle, that it
might serve as an example to them.  The culprit was the general's
barber, as we have said, and the executioner was merely the coachman,
who, being used to the handling of a whip, was raised or degraded,
which you will, to the office of executioner every time punishment
with the knout was ordered.  This duty did not deprive him of either
the esteem or even the friendship of his comrades, for they well knew
that it was his arm alone that punished them and that his heart was
not in his work.  As Ivan's arm as well as the rest of his body was
the property of the general, and the latter could do as he pleased
with it, no one was astonished that it should be used for this
purpose.  More than that, correction administered by Ivan was nearly
always gentler than that meted out by another; for it often happened
that Ivan, who was a good-natured fellow, juggled away one or two
strokes of the knout in a dozen, or if he were forced by those
assisting at the punishment to keep a strict calculation, he
manoeuvred so that the tip of the lash struck the deal plank on which
the culprit was lying, thus taking much of the sting out of the
stroke. Accordingly, when it was Ivan's turn to be stretched upon the
fatal plank and to receive the correction he was in the habit of
administering, on his own account, those who momentarily played his
part as executioner adopted the same expedients, remembering only the
strokes spared and not the strokes received.  This exchange of mutual
benefits, therefore, was productive of an excellent understanding
between Ivan and his comrades, which was never so firmly knit as at
the moment when a fresh execution was about to take place.  It is
true that the first hour after the punishment was generally so full
of suffering that the knouted was sometimes unjust to the knouter,
but this feeling seldom out-lasted the evening, and it was rare when
it held out after the first glass of spirits that the operator drank
to the health of his patient.

The serf upon whom Ivan was about to exercise his dexterity was a man
of five or six-and-thirty, red of hair and beard, a little above
average height.  His Greek origin might be traced in his countenance,
which even in its expression of terror had preserved its habitual
characteristics of craft and cunning.

When he arrived at the spot where the punishment was to take place,
the culprit stopped and looked up at the window which had already
claimed the young aide-de-camp's attention; it still remained shut.
With a glance round the throng which obstructed the entrance leading
to the street, he ended by gazing, with a horror-stricken shudder
upon the plank on which he was to be stretched.  The shudder did not
escape his friend Ivan, who, approaching to remove the striped shirt
that covered his shoulders, took the opportunity to whisper under his

"Come, Gregory, take courage!"

"You remember your promise?" replied the culprit, with an indefinable
expression of entreaty.

"Not for the first lashes, Gregory; do not count on that, for during
the first strokes the aide-de-camp will be watching; but among the
later ones be assured I will find means of cheating him of some of

"Beyond everything you will take care of the tip of the lash?"

"I will do my best, Gregory, I will do my best.  Do you not know that
I will?"

"Alas! yes," replied Gregory.

"Now, then!" said the aide-de-camp.

"We are ready, noble sir," replied Ivan.

"Wait, wait one moment, your high origin," cried poor Gregory,
addressing the young captain as though he had been a colonel, "Vache
Vousso Korodie," in order to flatter him.  "I believe that the lady
Vaninka's window is about to open!"

The young captain glanced eagerly towards the spot which had already
several times claimed his attention, but not a fold of the silken
curtains, which could be seen through the panes of the window, had

"You are mistaken, you rascal," said the aide-decamp, unwillingly
removing his eyes from the window, as though he also had hoped to see
it open," you are mistaken; and besides, what has your noble mistress
to do with all this?"

"Pardon, your excellency," continued Gregory, gratifying the aide-de-
camp with yet higher rank,--"pardon, but it is through her orders I
am about to suffer.  Perhaps she might have pity upon a wretched

"Enough, enough; let us proceed," said the captain in an odd voice,
as though he regretted as well as the culprit that Vaninka had not
shown mercy.

"Immediately, immediately, noble sir," said Ivan; then turning to
Gregory, he continued, "Come, comrade; the time has come."

Gregory sighed heavily, threw a last look up at the window, and
seeing that everything remained the same there, he mustered up
resolution enough to lie down on the fatal plank.  At the same time
two other serfs, chosen by Ivan for assistants, took him by the arms
and attached his wrists to two stakes, one at either side of him, so
that it appeared as though he were stretched on a cross.  Then they
clamped his neck into an iron collar, and seeing that all was in
readiness and that no sign favourable to the culprit had been made
from the still closely shut window, the young aide-de-camp beckoned
with his hand, saying, "Now, then, begin!"

"Patience, my lord, patience," said Ivan, still delaying the
whipping, in the hope that some sign might yet be made from the
inexorable window.  "I have a knot in my knout, and if I leave it
Gregory will have good right to complain."

The instrument with which the executioner was busying himself, and
which is perhaps unknown to our readers, was a species of whip, with
a handle about two feet long.  A plaited leather thong, about four
feet long and two inches broad, was attached to this handle, this
thong terminating in an iron or copper ring, and to this another band
of leather was fastened, two feet long, and at the beginning about
one and a half inches thick: this gradually became thinner, till it
ended in a point.  The thong was steeped in milk and then dried in
the sun, and on account of this method of preparation its edge became
as keen and cutting as a knife; further, the thong was generally
changed at every sixth stroke, because contact with blood softened

However unwillingly and clumsily Ivan set about untying the knot, it
had to come undone at last.  Besides, the bystanders were beginning
to grumble, and their muttering disturbed the reverie into which the
young aide-de-camp had fallen.  He raised his head, which had been
sunk on his breast, and cast a last look towards the window; then
with a peremptory sign; and in a voice which admitted of no delay, he
ordered the execution to proceed.

Nothing could put it off any longer: Ivan was obliged to obey, and he
did not attempt to find any new pretext for delay.  He drew back two
paces, and with a spring he returned to his place, and standing on
tiptoe, he whirled the knout above his head, and then letting it
suddenly fall, he struck Gregory with such dexterity that the lash
wrapped itself thrice round his victim's body, encircling him like a
serpent, but the tip of the thong struck the plank upon which Gregory
was lying.  Nevertheless, in spite of this precaution, Gregory
uttered a loud shriek, and Ivan counted "One."

At the shriek, the young aide-de-camp again turned towards the
window; but it was still shut, and mechanically his eyes went back to
the culprit, and he repeated the word "One."

The knout had traced three blue furrows on Gregory's shoulders.  Ivan
took another spring, and with the same skill as before he again
enveloped the culprit's body with the hissing thong, ever taking care
that the tip of it should not touch him.  Gregory uttered another
shriek, and Ivan counted "Two."  The blood now began to colour the

At the third stroke several drops of blood appeared; at the fourth
the blood spurted out; at the fifth some drops spattered the young
officer's face; he drew back, and wiped them away with his

Next Page > >

Other sites: