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Three Deaths

Leo Tolstoy's signature

Leo Tolstoy


This is the Bookwise complete ebook of Three Deaths by Leo Tolstoy, available to read online as an alternative to epub, mobi, kindle, pdf or text only versions. For information about the status of this work, see Copyright Notice.



It was autumn. Two carriages were driving at a rapid trot along the highroad. In the foremost sat two women. One was a lady, thin and pale; the other, her maid, was plump, with shining, red cheeks. Her short, coarse hair stood out under her faded hat; her red hand, in a torn glove, kept hurriedly putting it tidy; her high bosom, covered with a tapestry kerchief, was eloquent of health; her quick, black eyes watched out of the window the fields flying past, then glanced timidly at her mistress, then shifted uneasily about the corners of the carriage. Just before the maid’s nose swung the lady’s hat, hanging from the rack above; on her lap lay a puppy. Her feet were kept from the floor by the boxes that stood on the carriage floor, and could be faintly heard knocking on it through the shaking of the springs and the rattling of the windows.

With her hands clapped on her knees and her eyes closed, the lady swayed feebly to and fro on the cushions that had been put at her back, and with a slight frown she coughed inwardly. On her head she wore a white nightcap, and a light blue neckkerchief was tied on her soft, white neck. A straight parting, retreating under her cap, divided her fair, pomaded, exceedingly flat hair, and there was a dry, deathlike look about the whiteness of the skin of this wide parting. The faded, yellowish skin hung loose on her delicate and beautiful features, and was flushed on her cheeks. Her lips were dry and restless, her eyelashes were thin and straight, and her cloth travelling cloak fell in straight folds over her sunken bosom. Though her eyes were closed, the lady’s face expressed fatigue, irritation, and habitual suffering. A footman was dozing on the box, one elbow on the rail of the seat. The driver, hired from the posting-station, shouted briskly to the four sturdy, sweating horses, and looked round now and then at the other driver, who called to him from behind on the coach. Smoothly and rapidly the wheels made their broad, parallel tracks along the chalky mud of the road. The sky was grey and cold; a damp mist was falling over the fields and the road. The carriage was close, and smelt of eau de cologne and dust. The sick woman stretched her head back and opened her eyes. Her large, handsome, dark eyes were very bright.

“Again,” she said, her beautiful, thin hand nervously thrusting away a corner of the maid’s cloak which was just brushing against her knees, and her mouth twitched painfully. Matryosha gathered up her cloak in both hands, lifted it up on her lap, and edged further away. Her blooming face flushed bright red. The sick woman’s fine dark eyes kept eager watch on the servant’s actions. She leaned with both hands on the seat and tried to raise herself, so as to be sitting higher up; but her strength failed her. Her mouth twitched and her whole face worked with an expression of helpless, wrathful irony. “You might at least help me!⁠ ⁠… Ah, you needn’t! I can do it myself, only be so good as not to lay your bundles, bags, or whatever they are behind me, please! You had better not touch me if you’re so awkward!”

The lady shut her eyes, and rapidly raising her eyelids again glanced at the maid. Matryosha was staring at her and biting her red underlip. A heavy sigh rose from the sick woman’s chest, but changed to a cough before it was uttered. She turned away, frowning, and clutched at her chest with both hands. When the cough was over, she closed her eyes again and sat without stirring. The carriage and the coach drove into a village. Matryosha put her stout arm out from under her kerchief and crossed herself.

“What is it?” asked the lady.

“A station, madam.”

“What do you cross yourself for, I ask?”

“The church, madam.”

The sick woman turned towards the window, and began slowly crossing herself, her great eyes fastened on the big village church as the carriage drove by it.

The two carriages stopped together at the station. The sick woman’s husband and the doctor got out of the other carriage and came up to her.

“How do you feel?” asked the doctor, taking her pulse.

“Well, how are you, my dear⁠—not tired?” asked her husband, in French. “Wouldn’t you like to get out?”

Matryosha, gathering up her bundles, squeezed into a corner so as not to be in their way as they talked.

“Just the same,” answered the lady. “I won’t get out.”

Her husband stayed a little while beside the carriage, then went into the posting-station. Matryosha got out of the carriage and ran on tiptoe through the mud to the gates.

“If I am ill, it’s no reason you shouldn’t have your lunch,” the invalid said with a faint smile to the doctor, who was standing at the carriage window.

“None of them care anything about me,” she added to herself, as soon as the doctor had moved with sedate step away from her and run at a trot up the steps of the station-house. “They are all right, so they don’t care. O my God!”

“Well, Edward Ivanovitch,” said her husband, meeting the doctor and rubbing his hands, with a cheery smile. “I’ve ordered the case of wine to be brought in; what do you say to a bottle?”

“I shouldn’t say no,” answered the doctor.

“Well, how is she?” the husband asked with a sigh, lifting his eyebrows and dropping his voice.

“I have told you she can’t possibly get as far as Italy; if she reaches Moscow it will be a wonder, especially in this weather.”

“What are we to do! O my God! my God!” The husband put his hand over his eyes. “Put it here,” he added to the servant who brought in the case of wine.

“You should have kept her at home,” the doctor answered, shrugging his shoulders.

“But tell me, what could I do?” protested the husband. “I did everything I could, you know, to keep her. I talked to her of our pecuniary position, and of the children whom we should have to leave behind, and of my business⁠—she won’t hear a word of anything. She makes plans for her life abroad as though she were strong and well. And to tell her of her position would be her deathblow.”

“But she has that already, you ought to know it, Vassily Dmitritch. A person can’t live with no lungs, and the lungs can’t grow again. It’s distressing and terrible, but what’s one to do? My duty and yours is simply to see that her end should be as easy as possible. It’s the priest who is needed now.”

“O my God! But conceive my position, having to speak to her of the last sacrament. Come what will, I can’t tell her. You know how good she is.”

“You must try, all the same, to persuade her to wait till the roads are frozen,” said the doctor, shaking his head significantly, “or we may have a disaster on the road.”

“Aksyusha, hey, Aksyusha!” shrieked the overseer’s daughter, flinging a jacket over her head, and stamping on the dirty back steps of the station; “let’s go and have a look at the lady from Shirkin; they say she’s being taken abroad for her lungs. I’ve never seen what people look like in consumption.”

Aksyusha darted out at the doorway, and arm in arm they ran by the gate. Slackening their pace, they walked by the carriage, and peeped in at the lowered window. The sick woman turned her head towards them, but noticing their curiosity, she frowned and turned away.

“My gra-a-cious!” said the overseer’s daughter, turning her head away quickly. “Such a wonderful beauty as she was, and what does she look like now. Enough to frighten one, really. Did you see, did you see, Aksyusha?”

“Yes, she is thin!” Aksyusha assented. “Let’s go by and get another look at her, as though we were going to the well. She turned away before I’d seen her properly. I am sorry for her, Masha!”

“And the mud’s awful!” answered Masha, and both ran back to the gate.

“I’ve grown frightful, it seems,” thought the invalid. “Ah, to make haste, to make haste to get abroad, then I shall soon be better!”

“Well, how are you, my dear?” said her husband, still munching as he came up to the carriage.

“Always that invariable question,” thought the sick woman, “and he goes on eating too!”

“Just the same,” she muttered through her teeth.

“Do you know, my dear, I’m afraid the journey will be bad for you in this weather, and Edward Ivanovitch says so too. Hadn’t we better turn back?”

She kept wrathfully silent.

“The weather will change, and the roads perhaps will be hard, and that would make it better for you; and then we would all go together.”

“Excuse me. If I hadn’t listened to you long ago, I should be in Berlin by now and should be quite well.”

“That couldn’t be helped, my angel; it was out of the question, as you know! But now, if you would wait for a month, you would be ever so much better. I should have settled my business, and we could take the children.”

“The children are quite well, and I am not.”

“But consider, my dear, with this weather if you get worse on the road⁠ ⁠… there, at any rate, you’re at home.”

“And if I am at home?⁠ ⁠… To die at home?” the sick woman answered hotly. But the word die evidently terrified her; she bent an imploring, questioning look upon her husband. He dropped his eyes and did not speak. The sick woman’s mouth puckered all at once like a child’s, and tears dropped from her eyes. Her husband buried his face in his handkerchief, and walked away from the carriage without speaking.

“No, I am going,” said the sick woman, lifting her eyes towards heaven, and she fell to whispering disconnected words. “My God, what for?” she said, and the tears flowed more freely. For a long while she prayed fervently, but there was still the same pain and tightness on her chest. It was still as grey and cheerless in the sky, and in the fields, and along the road; and the same autumn mist, neither thicker nor clearer, hung over the mud of the road, the roofs of the huts, the carriage and the sheepskins of the drivers, who were greasing and harnessing a carriage, chatting together in their vigorous, merry voices.


The horses were put in the shafts; but the driver lingered. He went into the drivers’ hut. It was hot and stifling, dark and oppressive in the hut; there was a smell of human beings, baking bread, and cabbage, and sheepskins. There were several drivers in the room; the cook was busy at the stove; on the top of the stove lay a sick man wrapped in sheepskins.

“Uncle Fyodor! hey, Uncle Fyodor!” said the driver as he came into the room. He was a young fellow, in a sheepskin coat with a whip stuck in his belt, and he was addressing the sick man.

“What are you asking Fedya?” one of the drivers interposed. “They are waiting for you in the carriage.”

“I want to ask him for his boots; I’ve worn mine into holes,” answered the young fellow, tossing back his hair and straightening the gloves in his belt. “Is he asleep? Hey, Uncle Fyodor?” he repeated, going up to the stove.

“What?” a weak voice was heard in reply, and a thin face with a red beard bent over from the stove. A big, wasted, white hand, covered with hair, pulled up a coat on the bony shoulder in the dirty shirt. “Give me a drink, brother; what do you want?”

The young man handed him a dipper of water.

“Well, Fedya,” he said, hesitating, “you won’t be wanting your new boots now; give them to me; you won’t be going out, you know.”

Pressing his weary head to the shining dipper, and wetting his scanty, hanging moustaches in the dingy water, the sick man drank feebly and eagerly. His tangled beard was not clean, his sunken, lustreless eyes were lifted with an effort to the young man’s face. When he had finished drinking he tried to lift his hand to wipe his wet lips, but he could not, and he wiped them on the sleeve of the coat. Without uttering a sound, but breathing heavily through his nose, he looked straight into the young man’s eyes, trying to rally his strength.

“Maybe you’ve promised them to someone already?” said the young man; “if so, never mind. The thing is, it’s soaking wet outside, and I’ve to go out on a job; and I said to myself, why, I’ll ask Fedya for his boots, he’ll not need them, for sure. If you are likely to need them yourself, say so.”

There was a gurgle and a grumble in the sick man’s throat; he bent over and was choked by a deep, stifling cough.

“He need them!” the cook cried out in sudden anger, filling the whole hut with her voice; “he’s not got off the stove these two months! Why, he coughs fit to split himself; it makes me ache inside simply to hear him. How could he want boots? He won’t wear new boots to be buried! And time he was, too, long ago⁠—God forgive me the sin! Why, he coughs fit to split himself. He ought to be moved into another hut, or somewhere! There are hospitals, I’ve heard say, for such in the town; he takes up the whole place, and what’s one to do? One hasn’t room to turn round. And then they expect me to keep the place clean!”

“Hi, Seryoga! go and take your seat; the gentry are waiting,” the overseer of the posting-station shouted at the door.

Seryoga would have gone away without waiting for an answer, but the sick man’s eyes, while he was coughing, had told him he wanted to answer.

“You take the boots, Seryoga,” said he, stifling the cough and taking breath a minute. “Only buy me a stone when I die, do you hear?” he added huskily.

“Thanks, uncle, so I’ll take them; and as to the stone, ay, ay, I’ll buy it.”

“There, lads, you hear?” the sick man managed to articulate, and again he bent over and began choking.

“All right, we heard,” said one of the drivers. “Go along, Seryoga, or the overseer will be running after you again. The lady from Shirkin is ill.”

Seryoga quickly pulled off his torn and enormously too large boots, and thrust them under a locker. Uncle Fyodor’s new boots fitted his feet precisely, and Seryoga went out to the carriage looking at them.

“What grand boots! let me grease them for you,” said a driver with the greasepot in his hand, as Seryoga got on the box and picked up the reins. “Did he give them you for nothing?”

“Why, are you jealous?” answered Seryoga, getting up and shaking down the skirts of his coat about his legs. “Hi, get up, my darlings!” he shouted to the horses, brandishing the whip, and the two carriages, with their occupants, boxes, and baggage, rolled swiftly along the wet road, and vanished into the grey autumn mist.

The sick driver remained lying on the stove in the stifling hut. Unrelieved by coughing, he turned over on the other side with an effort, and was quiet. All day till evening, men were coming and going and dining in the hut; there was no sound from the sick man. At nightfall, the cook clambered up into the stove and reached across his legs to get a sheepskin. “Don’t you be angry with me, Nastasya,” said the sick man; “I shall soon clear out of your place.”

“That’s all right, that’s all right; why, I didn’t mean it,” muttered Nastasya. “But what is it that’s wrong with you, uncle? Tell me about it.”

“All my inside’s wasted away. God knows what it is.”

“My word! and does your throat hurt when you cough!”

“It hurts me all over. My death is at hand⁠—that’s what it is. Oh, oh, oh!” moaned the sick man.

“Cover your legs up like this,” said Nastasya, pulling a coat over him as she crept off the stove.

A night-light glimmered dimly all night in the hut. Nastasya and some ten drivers lay on the floor and the lockers asleep, and snoring loudly. The sick man alone moaned faintly, coughed, and turned over on the stove. Towards morning he became quite still.

“A queer dream I had in the night,” said the cook, stretching next morning in the half-light. “I dreamed that Uncle Fyodor got down from the stove and went out to chop wood. ‘Nastasya,’ says he, ‘I’ll split you some’; and I says to him, ‘How can you chop the wood?’ and he snatched up the axe and starts chopping so fast, so fast that the chips were flying. ‘Why,’ says I, ‘you were ill, weren’t you?’ ‘No,’ says he, ‘I’m all right,’ and he swings the axe, so that it gave me quite a fright. I screamed out and waked up. Isn’t he dead, perhaps? Uncle Fyodor! Hey, uncle!”

Fyodor made no sound in reply.

“Maybe he is dead. I’ll get up and see,” said one of the drivers who was awake.

A thin hand, covered with reddish hairs, hung down from the stove; it was cold and pale.

“I’ll go and tell the overseer. He’s dead, seemingly,” said the driver.

Fyodor had no relations⁠—he had come from distant parts. The next day he was buried in the new graveyard beyond the copse, and for several days after Nastasya told every one of the dream she had had, and how she had been the first to discover that Uncle Fyodor was dead.


Spring had come. Streams of water hurried gurgling between the frozen dung-heaps in the wet streets of the town. The people moving to and fro were gaily dressed and gaily chattering. Behind the fences of the little gardens the buds on the trees were swelling, and their branches rustled faintly in the fresh breeze. Everywhere there was a running and a dripping of clear drops.⁠ ⁠… The sparrows chattered incoherently, and fluttered to and fro on their little wings. On the sunny side, on fences, trees, and houses, all was movement. There was youth and gladness in the sky and in the earth and in the heart of man. In one of the principal streets there was straw lying in front of a large house; in the house lay the dying woman who had been hastening abroad.

At the closed doors of her room stood the sick woman’s husband and an elderly woman; on the sofa sat a priest with downcast eyes, holding something wrapped up in his stole. In a corner an old lady, the mother of the sick woman, lay in a low chair, weeping bitterly. Near her stood a maid holding a clean pocket-handkerchief in readiness for the old lady when she should ask for it. Another maid was rubbing the old lady’s temples with something and blowing on her grey head under her cap.

“Well, Christ be with you, my dear,” said the husband to the elderly woman who was standing with him at the door; “she has such confidence in you, you know so well how to talk to her; go in, and have a good talk with her.” He would have opened the door; but the cousin restrained him, put her handkerchief several times to her eyes, and shook her head.

“Come, now, I don’t look as if I had been crying, I think,” she said, and opening the door herself, she went into the sickroom.

The husband was in great excitement, and seemed utterly distraught. He walked towards the old lady, but stopped short a few paces from her, turned, walked about the room, and went up to the priest. The priest looked at him, raised his eyebrows heavenwards, and sighed. His thick, grizzled beard turned upwards too, and then sank again.

“My God! my God!” said the husband.

“There is nothing one can do,” said the priest, and again his brows and his beard were elevated and drooped again.

“And her mother here!” the husband said, almost in despair. “She will never support this! She loves her, she loves her so that she⁠ ⁠… I don’t know. If you, father, would attempt to soothe her and to persuade her to go out of this room.”

The priest rose and went to the old lady.

“True it is, that none can sound the depths of a mother’s heart,” said he; “but God is merciful.”

The old lady’s face began suddenly twitching, and she sobbed hysterically.

“God is merciful,” the priest went on, when she was a little calmer. “In my parish, I must tell you, there was a man ill, much worse than Marya Dmitryevna, and a simple artisan cured him with herbs in a very short time. And this same artisan is in Moscow now, indeed. I told Vassily Dmitryevitch⁠—he might try him. Anyway, it would be a comfort to the sick woman. With God all things are possible.”

“No, she can’t live,” said the old lady; “if it could have been me, but God takes her.”

The sick woman’s husband hid his face in his hands, and ran out of the room.

The first person that met him in the corridor was a boy of six years old, who was running at full speed after a little girl younger than himself.

“Shouldn’t I take the children to see their mamma?” asked the nurse.

“No, she doesn’t want to see them. It upsets her.”

The boy stood still for a moment, staring intently into his father’s face, then suddenly kicking up his foot, with a merry shriek he ran on.

“I’m pretending she’s my black horse, papa!” shouted the boy, pointing to his sister.

Meanwhile in the next room the cousin was sitting by the sick woman’s bedside, and trying by skilfully leading up to the subject to prepare her for the idea of death. The doctor was at the other window mixing a draught.

The sick woman, in a white dressing-gown, sat propped up with pillows in bed, and gazed at the cousin without speaking.

“Ah, my dear,” she said, suddenly interrupting her, “don’t try to prepare me. Don’t treat me as a child. I am a Christian. I know all about it. I know I haven’t long to live; I know that if my husband would have listened to me sooner, I should have been in Italy, and perhaps, most likely indeed, should have been quite well. Everyone told him so. But it can’t be helped, it seems that it was God’s will. We are all great sinners, I know that; but I put my trust in God’s mercy, to forgive all, surely, all. I try to understand myself. I, too, have sinned greatly, my dear. But, to make up, how I have suffered. I have tried to bear my sufferings with patience.⁠ ⁠…”

“Then may I send for the good father, my dear? You will feel all the easier after the sacrament,” said the cousin. The sick woman bowed her head in token of assent.

“God forgive me, a sinner!” she murmured.

The cousin went out and beckoned to the priest.

“She is an angel!” she said to the husband with tears in her eyes. The husband began to weep; the priest went in at the door; the old lady was still unconscious, and in the outer room there was a complete stillness. Five minutes later the priest came out, and taking off his stole smoothed back his hair.

“Thank God, the lady is calmer now,” he said; “she wants to see you.”

The cousin and the husband went in. The sick woman was weeping quietly, gazing at the holy picture.

“I congratulate you, my dear,” said her husband.

“Thank you! How happy I am now, what unspeakable joy I am feeling!” said the sick woman, and a faint smile played about her thin lips. “How merciful is God! Is it not true? Is He not merciful and almighty?” And again with eyes full of tears she gazed at the holy picture in eager prayer.

Then suddenly something seemed to recur to her mind. She beckoned her husband to her.

“You never will do what I ask,” she said in a weak, irritable voice.

Her husband, craning his neck forward, listened submissively.

“What is it, my dear?”

“How often I’ve told you those doctors don’t know anything; there are simple healers, who work cures.⁠ ⁠… The holy father told me⁠ ⁠… an artisan⁠ ⁠… send for him.”

“For whom, my dear?”

“My God, he won’t understand anything!⁠ ⁠…”

And the sick woman frowned and covered her eyes. The doctor went up and took her hand. The pulse was growing perceptibly weaker and weaker. He made a sign to the husband. The sick woman noticed this gesture and looked round in alarm. The cousin turned away, and burst into tears.

“Don’t cry, don’t torture yourself and me,” said the sick woman; “that destroys all the calm left me.”

“You are an angel!” said the cousin, kissing her hand.

“No, kiss me here, it’s only the dead who are kissed on the hand. My God! my God!”

The same evening the sick woman was a corpse, and the corpse lay in a coffin in the drawing-room of the great house. The doors of the big room were closed, and in it a deacon sat alone, reading the Psalms of David aloud in a rhythmic, nasal tone. The bright light of the wax candles in the tall silver candlesticks fell on the pale brow of the dead woman, on the heavy, waxen hands and the stone-like folds of the shroud, that jutted up horribly at the knees and toes. The deacon read on rhythmically without taking in the meaning of his own words, and the words echoed and died away strangely in the still room. From time to time the sounds of children’s voices and the tramp of their feet came from a faraway room.

“ ‘Thou unveilest Thy face, and they are confounded,’ ” the psalm-reader boomed; “ ‘Thou takest from them Thy breath, they die and return to the dust from which they came. Thou breathest Thy spirit into them⁠—they are created and renew the earth. Glory be to God now and forever.’ ”

The face of the dead woman was stern and solemn. Nothing stirred the pure, cold brow and the firmly set lips. She was all attention. But did she even now understand those grand words?


A month later a stone monument had been raised over the dead woman’s grave. But there was still no stone over the driver’s grave, and there was nothing but the bright green grass over the mound, which was the only sign of a man’s past existence.

“It’ll be a sin in you, Seryoga,” the cook at the station said one day, “if you don’t buy a stone for Fyodor. You were always saying it was winter, but now why don’t you keep your word? I was by at the time. He’s come back once already to ask you for it; if you don’t buy it, he’ll come again and stifle you.”

“Why, did I say I wasn’t going to?” answered Seryoga; “I’ll buy a stone as I said I would; I’ll buy one for a silver rouble and a half. I’ve not forgotten, but it must be fetched, you know. As soon as I’ve a chance to go to the town I’ll buy it.”

“You might put a cross up anyway,” put in an old driver, “or else it’s a downright shame. You’re wearing the boots.”

“Where’s one to get a cross? You wouldn’t cut one out of a log of firewood?”

“What are you talking about? You can’t hew it out of a log. You take an axe and go early in the morning into the copse; you can cut a cross there. An aspen or something you can fell. And it’ll make a fine wooden monument too. Or else you’ll have to go and stand the forest-reeve a drink of vodka. One doesn’t want to have to give him a drink for every trifle. The other day I broke a splinter-bar; I cut myself a firstrate new one, and no one said a word to me.”

In the early morning, when it was hardly light, Seryoga took his axe and went into the wood. Over all lay a chill, even-coloured veil of still-falling dew, not lighted up by the sun. The east was imperceptibly growing clearer, reflecting its faint light on the arch of sky covered with fine clouds. Not a blade of grass below, not a leaf on the topmost twig stirred. The stillness of the forest was only broken at intervals by the sound of wings in a tree or a rustle on the ground. Suddenly a strange sound, not one of nature’s own, rang out and died away on the edge of the forest. But again the sound was heard, and began to be repeated at regular intervals near the trunk of one of the motionless trees. One of the treetops began shaking in a strange way; its sappy leaves whispered something; and a warbler that had been perched on one of its branches fluttered round it twice, and uttering a whistle and wagging its tail, settled on another tree.

The axe gave a duller and duller ring, the sappy, white chips flew out on the dewy grass, and a faint crackling sound followed each blow. The tree shuddered all over, bowed, and quickly stood up straight again, trembling in dismay on its roots. For a moment all was still, but again the tree bent; a crack was heard in its trunk, and with a snapping of twigs its branches dropped, and it crashed down with its top on the damp earth. The sounds of the axe and of steps died away. The warbler whistled and flew up higher. The branch in which it had caught its wings shook for a little while in all its leaves, then became still like the rest. The trees displayed their motionless branches more gladly than ever in the open space. The first beams of the sun, piercing through the transparent cloud, shone out in the sky and darted over the earth. The mist began rolling in waves into the hollows; the dew glittered sparkling on the green grass; the transparent clouds turned white, and floated in haste across the bluish sky. The birds flitted to and fro in the thickets and twittered some happy song, like mad things. The sappy leaves whispered joyously and calmly on the treetops, and the branches of the living trees, slowly, majestically, swayed above the fallen dead tree.


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