Book 12 Chapter 13

IN THIS SHED, where Pierre spent four weeks, there were twenty-three soldiers, three officers, and two civilian functionaries, all prisoners.

They were all misty figures to Pierre afterwards, but Platon Karataev remained for ever in his mind the strongest and most precious memory, and the personification of everything Russian, kindly, and round. When next day at dawn Pierre saw his neighbour, his first impression of something round was fully confirmed; Platon's whole figure in his French military coat, girt round the waist with cord, in his forage-cap and bast shoes, was roundish, his head was perfectly round, his back, his chest, his shoulders, even his arms, which he always held as though he were about to embrace something, were round in their lines; his friendly smile and big, soft, brown eyes, too, were round.

Platon Karataev must have been over fifty to judge by his stories of the campaigns in which he had taken part. He did not himself know and could not determine how old he was. But his strong, dazzlingly white teeth showed in two unbroken semicircles whenever he laughed, as he often did, and all were good and sound: there was not a grey hair in his beard or on his head, and his whole frame had a look of suppleness and of unusual hardiness and endurance.

His face had an expression of innocence and youth in spite of the curving wrinkles on it; his voice had a pleasant sing-song note. But the great peculiarity of his talk was its spontaneity and readiness. It was evident that he never thought of what he was saying, or of what he was going to say; and that gave a peculiar, irresistible persuasiveness to his rapid and genuine intonations.

His physical powers and activity were such, during the first period of his imprisonment, that he seemed not to know what fatigue or sickness meant. Every evening as he lay down to sleep, he said: “Let me lie down, Lord, like a stone; let me rise up like new bread”; and every morning on getting up, he would shake his shoulder in the same way, saying: “Lie down and curl up, get up and shake yourself.” And he had, in fact, only to lie down in order to sleep at once like a stone, and he had but to shake himself to be ready at once, on waking, without a second's delay, to set to work of some sort; just as children, on waking, begin at once playing with their toys. He knew how to do everything, not particularly well, but not badly either. He baked, and cooked, and sewed, and planed, and cobbled boots. He was always busy, and only in the evenings allowed himself to indulge in conversation, which he loved, and singing. He sang songs, not as singers do, who know they are listened to, but sang, as the birds sing, obviously, because it was necessary to him to utter those sounds, as it sometimes is to stretch or to walk about; and those sounds were always thin, tender, almost feminine, melancholy notes, and his face as he uttered them was very serious.

Being in prison, and having let his beard grow, he had apparently cast off all the soldier's ways that had been forced upon him and were not natural to him, and had unconsciously relapsed into his old peasant habits.

“A soldier discharged is the shirt outside the breeches again,” he used to say. He did not care to talk of his life as a soldier, though he never complained, and often repeated that he had never once been beaten since he had been in the service. When he told stories, it was always by preference of his old and evidently precious memories of his life as a “Christian,” as he pronounced the word “krestyan,” or peasant. The proverbial sayings, of which his talk was full, were not the bold, and mostly indecent, sayings common among soldiers, but those peasant saws, which seem of so little meaning looked at separately, and gain all at once a significance of profound wisdom when uttered appropriately.

Often he would say something directly contrary to what he had said before, but both sayings were equally true. He liked talking, and talked well, adorning his speech with caressing epithets and proverbial sayings, which Pierre fancied he often invented himself. But the great charm of his talk was that the simplest incidents—sometimes the same that Pierre had himself seen without noticing them—in his account of them gained a character of seemliness and solemn significance. He liked to listen to the fairy tales which one soldier used to tell—always the same ones over and over again—in the evenings, but most of all he liked to listen to stories of real life. He smiled gleefully as he listened to such stories, putting in words and asking questions, all aiming at bringing out clearly the moral beauty of the action of which he was told. Attachments, friendships, love, as Pierre understood them, Karataev had none; but he loved and lived on affectionate terms with every creature with whom he was thrown in life, and especially so with man—not with any particular man, but with the men who happened to be before his eyes. He loved his dog, loved his comrades, loved the French, loved Pierre, who was his neighbour. But Pierre felt that in spite of Karataev's affectionate tenderness to him (in which he involuntarily paid tribute to Pierre's spiritual life), he would not suffer a moment's grief at parting from him. And Pierre began to have the same feeling towards Karataev.

To all the other soldiers Platon Karataev was the most ordinary soldier; they called him “little hawk,” or Platosha; made good-humoured jibes at his expense, sent him to fetch things. But to Pierre, such as he appeared on that first night—an unfathomable, rounded-off, and everlasting personification of the spirit of simplicity and truth—so he remained to him for ever.

Platon Karataev knew nothing by heart except his prayers. When he talked, he did not know on beginning a sentence how he was going to end it.

When Pierre, struck sometimes by the force of his remarks, asked him to repeat what he had said, Platon could never recall what he had said the minute before, just as he could never repeat to Pierre the words of his favourite song. There came in, “My own little birch-tree,” and “My heart is sick,” but there was no meaning in the words. He did not understand, and could not grasp the significance of words taken apart from the sentence. Every word and every action of his was the expression of a force uncomprehended by him, which was his life. But his life, as he looked at it, had no meaning as a separate life. It had meaning only as a part of a whole, of which he was at all times conscious. His words and actions flowed from him as smoothly, as inevitably, and as spontaneously, as the perfume rises from the flower. He could not understand any value or significance in an act or a word taken separately.