The Brothers Karamazov, by Fyodor Dostoyevsky

Chapter 2

Dangerous Witnesses

I DO NOT know whether the witnesses for the defence and for the prosecution were separated into groups by the President, and whether it was arranged to call them in a certain order. But no doubt it was so. I only know that the witnesses for the prosecution were called first. I repeat I don’t intend to describe all the questions step by step. Besides, my account would be to some extent superfluous, because in the speeches for the prosecution and for the defence the whole course of the evidence was brought together and set in a strong and significant light, and I took down parts of those two remarkable speeches in full, and will quote them in due course, together with one extraordinary and quite unexpected episode, which occurred before the final speeches, and undoubtedly influenced the sinister and fatal outcome of the trial.

I will only observe that from the first moments of the trial one peculiar characteristic of the case was conspicuous and observed by all, that is, the overwhelming strength of the prosecution as compared with the arguments the defence had to rely upon. Everyone realised it from the first moment that the facts began to group themselves round a single point, and the whole horrible and bloody crime was gradually revealed. Everyone, perhaps, felt from the first that the case was beyond dispute, that there was no doubt about it, that there could be really no discussion, and that the defence was only a matter of form, and that the prisoner was guilty, obviously and conclusively guilty. I imagine that even the ladies, who were so impatiently longing for the acquittal of the interesting prisoner, were at the same time, without exception, convinced of his guilt. What’s more, I believe they would have been mortified if his guilt had not been so firmly established, as that would have lessened the effect of the closing scene of the criminal’s acquittal. That he would be acquitted, all the ladies, strange to say, were firmly persuaded up to the very last moment. “He is guilty, but he will be acquitted, from motives of humanity, in accordance with the new ideas, the new sentiments that had come into fashion,” and so on, and so on. And that was why they had crowded into the court so impatiently. The men were more interested in the contest between the prosecutor and the famous Fetyukovitch. All were wondering and asking themselves what could even a talent like Fetyukovitch’s make of such a desperate case; and so they followed his achievements, step by step, with concentrated attention.

But Fetyukovitch remained an enigma to all up to the very end, up to his speech. Persons of experience suspected that he had some design, that he was working towards some object, but it was almost impossible to guess what it was. His confidence and self-reliance were unmistakable, however. Everyone noticed with pleasure, moreover, that he, after so short a stay, not more than three days, perhaps, among us, had so wonderfully succeeded in mastering the case and “had studied it to a nicety.” People described with relish, afterwards, how cleverly he had “taken down” all the witnesses for the prosecution, and as far as possible perplexed them and, what’s more, had aspersed their reputation and so depreciated the value of their evidence. But it was supposed that he did this rather by way of sport, so to speak, for professional glory, to show nothing had been omitted of the accepted methods, for all were convinced that he could do no real good by such disparagement of the witnesses, and probably was more aware of this than anyone, having some idea of his own in the background, some concealed weapon of defence, which he would suddenly reveal when the time came. But meanwhile, conscious of his strength, he seemed to be diverting himself.

So, for instance, when Grigory, Fyodor Pavlovitch’s old servant, who had given the most damning piece of evidence about the open door, was examined, the counsel for the defence positively fastened upon him when his turn came to question him. It must be noted that Grigory entered the trial with a composed and almost stately air, not the least disconcerted by the majesty of the court or the vast audience listening to him. He gave evidence with as much confidence as though he had been talking with his Marfa, only perhaps more respectfully. It was impossible to make him contradict himself. The prosecutor questioned him first in detail about the family life of the Karamazovs. The family picture stood out in lurid colours. It was plain to ear and eye that the witness was guileless and impartial. In spite of his profound reverence for the memory of his deceased master, he yet bore witness that he had been unjust to Mitya and “hadn’t brought up his children as he should. He’d have been devoured by lice when he was little, if it hadn’t been for me,” he added, describing Mitya’s early childhood. “It wasn’t fair either of the father to wrong his son over his mother’s property, which was by right his.”

In reply to the prosecutor’s question what grounds he had for asserting that Fyodor Pavlovitch had wronged his son in their money relations, Grigory, to the surprise of everyone, had no proof at all to bring forward, but he still persisted that the arrangement with the son was “unfair,” and that he ought “to have paid him several thousand roubles more.” I must note, by the way, that the prosecutor asked this question (whether Fyodor Pavlovitch had really kept back part of Mitya’s inheritance) with marked persistence of all the witnesses who could be asked it, not excepting Alyosha and Ivan, but he obtained no exact information from anyone; all alleged that it was so, but were unable to bring forward any distinct proof. Grigory’s description of the scene at the dinner-table, when Dmitri had burst in and beaten his father, threatening to come back to kill him, made a sinister impression on the court, especially as the old servant’s composure in telling it, his parsimony of words, and peculiar phraseology were as effective as eloquence. He observed that he was not angry with Mitya for having knocked him down and struck him on the face; he had forgiven him long ago, he said. Of the deceased Smerdyakov he observed, crossing himself, that he was a lad of ability, but stupid and afflicted, and, worse still, an infidel, and that it was Fyodor Pavlovitch and his elder son who had taught him to be so. But he defended Smerdyakov’s honesty almost with warmth, and related how Smerdyakov had once found the master’s money in the yard, and, instead of concealing it, had taken it to his master, who had rewarded him with a “gold piece” for it, and trusted him implicitly from that time forward. He maintained obstinately that the door into the garden had been open. But he was asked so many questions that I can’t recall them all.

At last the counsel for the defence began to cross-examine him, and the first question he asked was about the envelope in which Fyodor Pavlovitch was supposed to have put three thousand roubles for “a certain person.” “Have you ever seen it, you, who were for so many years in close attendance on your master?” Grigory answered that he had not seen it and had never heard of the money from anyone “till everybody was talking about it.” This question about the envelope Fetyukovitch put to everyone who could conceivably have known of it, as persistently as the prosecutor asked his question about Dmitri’s inheritance, and got the same answer from all, that no one had seen the envelope, though many had heard of it. From the beginning everyone noticed Fetyukovitch’s persistence on this subject.

“Now, with your permission I’ll ask you a question,” Fetyukovitch said, suddenly and unexpectedly. “Of what was that balsam, or, rather, decoction, made, which, as we learn from the preliminary inquiry, you used on that evening to rub your lumbago, in the hope of curing it?”

Grigory looked blankly at the questioner, and after a brief silence muttered, “There was saffron in it.”

“Nothing but saffron? Don’t you remember any other ingredient?”

“There was milfoil in it, too.”

“And pepper perhaps?” Fetyukovitch queried.

“Yes, there was pepper, too.”

“Etcetera. And all dissolved in vodka?”

“In spirit.”

There was a faint sound of laughter in the court.

“You see, in spirit. After rubbing your back, I believe, you drank what was left in the bottle with a certain pious prayer, only known to your wife?”

“I did.”

“Did you drink much? Roughly speaking, a wine-glass or two?”

“It might have been a tumbler-full.”

“A tumbler-full, even. Perhaps a tumbler and a half?”

Grigory did not answer. He seemed to see what was meant.

“A glass and a half of neat spirit — is not at all bad, don’t you think? You might see the gates of heaven open, not only the door into the garden?”

Grigory remained silent. There was another laugh in the court. The President made a movement.

“Do you know for a fact,” Fetyukovitch persisted, “whether you were awake or not when you saw the open door?”

“I was on my legs.”

“That’s not a proof that you were awake.” (There was again laughter in the court.) “Could you have answered at that moment, if anyone had asked you a question — for instance, what year it is?”

“I don’t know.”

“And what year is it, Anno Domini, do you know?”

Grigory stood with a perplexed face, looking straight at his tormentor. Strange to say, it appeared he really did not know what year it was.

“But perhaps you can tell me how many fingers you have on your hands?”

“I am a servant,” Grigory said suddenly, in a loud and distinct voice. “If my betters think fit to make game of me, it is my duty to suffer it.”

Fetyukovitch was a little taken aback, and the President intervened, reminding him that he must ask more relevant questions. Fetyukovitch bowed with dignity and said that he had no more questions to ask of the witness. The public and the jury, of course, were left with a grain of doubt in their minds as to the evidence of a man who might, while undergoing a certain cure, have seen “the gates of heaven,” and who did not even know what year he was living in. But before Grigory left the box another episode occurred. The President, turning to the prisoner, asked him whether he had any comment to make on the evidence of the last witness.

“Except about the door, all he has said is true,” cried Mitya, in a loud voice. “For combing the lice off me, I thank him; for forgiving my blows, I thank him. The old man has been honest all his life and as faithful to my father as seven hundred poodles.”

“Prisoner, be careful in your language,” the President admonished him.

“I am not a poodle,” Grigory muttered.

“All right, it’s I am a poodle myself,” cried Mitya. “If it’s an insult, I take it to myself and I beg his pardon. I was a beast and cruel to him. I was cruel to Aesop too.”

“What Aesop?” the President asked sternly again.

“Oh, Pierrot . . . my father, Fyodor Pavlovitch.”

The President again and again warned Mitya impressively and very sternly to be more careful in his language.

“You are injuring yourself in the opinion of your judges.”

The counsel for the defence was equally clever in dealing with the evidence of Rakitin. I may remark that Rakitin was one of the leading witnesses and one to whom the prosecutor attached great significance. It appeared that he knew everything; his knowledge was amazing, he had been everywhere, seen everything, talked to everybody, knew every detail of the biography of Fyodor Pavlovitch and all the Karamazovs. Of the envelope, it is true, he had only heard from Mitya himself. But he described minutely Mitya’s exploits in the Metropolis, all his compromising doings and sayings, and told the story of Captain Snegiryov’s “wisp of tow.” But even Rakitin could say nothing positive about Mitya’s inheritance, and confined himself to contemptuous generalities.

“Who could tell which of them was to blame, and which was in debt to the other, with their crazy Karamazov way of muddling things so that no one could make head or tail of it?” He attributed the tragic crime to the habits that had become ingrained by ages of serfdom and the distressed condition of Russia, due to the lack of appropriate institutions. He was, in fact, allowed some latitude of speech. This was the first occasion on which Rakitin showed what he could do, and attracted notice. The prosecutor knew that the witness was preparing a magazine article on the case, and afterwards in his speech, as we shall see later, quoted some ideas from the article, showing that he had seen it already. The picture drawn by the witness was a gloomy and sinister one, and greatly strengthened the case for the prosecution. Altogether, Rakatin’s discourse fascinated the public by its independence and the extraordinary nobility of its ideas. There were even two or three outbreaks of applause when he spoke of serfdom and the distressed condition of Russia.

But Rakitin, in his youthful ardour, made a slight blunder, of which the counsel for the defence at once adroitly took advantage. Answering certain questions about Grushenka and carried away by the loftiness of his own sentiments and his success, of which he was, of course, conscious, he went so far as to speak somewhat contemptuously of Agrafena Alexandrovna as “the kept mistress of Samsonov.” He would have given a good deal to take back his words afterwards, for Fetyukovitch caught him out over it at once. And it was all because Rakitin had not reckoned on the lawyer having been able to become so intimately acquainted with every detail in so short a time.

“Allow me to ask,” began the counsel for the defence, with the most affable and even respectful smile, “you are, of course, the same Mr. Rakitin whose pamphlet, The Life of the Deceased Elder, Father Zossima, published by the diocesan authorities, full of profound and religious reflections and preceded by an excellent and devout dedication to the bishop, I have just read with such pleasure?”

“I did not write it for publication . . . it was published afterwards,” muttered Rakitin, for some reason fearfully disconcerted and almost ashamed.

“Oh, that’s excellent! A thinker like you can, and indeed ought to, take the widest view of every social question. Your most instructive pamphlet has been widely circulated through the patronage of the bishop, and has been of appreciable service. . . . But this is the chief thing I should like to learn from you. You stated just now that you were very intimately acquainted with Madame Svyetlov.” (It must be noted that Grushenka’s surname was Svyetlov. I heard it for the first time that day, during the case.)

“I cannot answer for all my acquaintances. . . . I am a young man . . . and who can be responsible for everyone he meets?” cried Rakitin, flushing all over.

“I understand, I quite understand,” cried Fetyukovitch; as though he, too, were embarrassed and in haste to excuse himself. “You, like any other, might well be interested in an acquaintance with a young and beautiful woman who would readily entertain the elite of the youth of the neighbourhood, but . . . I only wanted to know . . . It has come to my knowledge, that Madame Svyetlov was particularly anxious a couple of months ago to make the acquaintance of the younger Karamazov, Alexey Fyodorovitch, and promised you twenty-five roubles, if you would bring him to her in his monastic dress. And that actually took place on the evening of the day on which the terrible crime, which is the subject of the present investigation, was committed. You brought Alexey Karamazov to Madame Svyetlov, and did you receive the twenty-five roubles from Madame Svyetlov as a reward, that’s what I wanted to hear from you?”

“It was a joke. . . . I don’t, see of what interest that can be to you. . . . I took it for a joke . . . meaning to give it back later . . . ”

“Then you did take — but you have not given it back yet . . . or have you?”

“That’s of no consequence,” muttered Rakitin, “I refuse to answer such questions. . . . Of course, I shall give it back.”

The President intervened, but Fetyukovitch declared he had no more questions to ask of the witness. Mr. Rakitin left the witness-box not absolutely without a stain upon his character. The effect left by the lofty idealism of his speech was somewhat marred, and Fetyukovitch’s expression, as he watched him walk away, seemed to suggest to the public “this is a specimen of the lofty-minded persons who accuse him.” I remember that this incident, too, did not pass off without an outbreak from Mitya. Enraged by the tone in which Rakitin had referred to Grushenka, he suddenly shouted “Bernard!” When, after Rakitin’s cross-examination, the President asked the prisoner if he had anything to say, Mitya cried loudly:

“Since I’ve been arrested, he has borrowed money from me! He is a contemptible Bernard and opportunist, and he doesn’t believe in God; he took the bishop in!”

Mitya of course, was pulled up again for the intemperance of his language, but Rakitin was done for. Captain Snegiryov’s evidence was a failure, too, but from quite a different reason. He appeared in ragged and dirty clothes, muddy boots, and in spite of the vigilance and expert observation of the police officers, he turned out to be hopelessly drunk. On being asked about Mitya’s attack upon him, he refused to answer.

“God bless him. Ilusha told me not to. God will make it up to me yonder.”

“Who told you not to tell? Of whom are you talking?”

“Ilusha, my little son. ‘Father, father, how he insulted you!’ He said that at the stone. Now he is dying . . . ”

The captain suddenly began sobbing, and plumped down on His knees before the President. He was hurriedly led away amidst the laughter of the public. The effect prepared by the prosecutor did not come off at all.

Fetyukovitch went on making the most of every opportunity, and amazed people more and more by his minute knowledge of the case. Thus, for example, Trifon Borissovitch made a great impression, of course, very prejudicial to Mitya. He calculated almost on his fingers that on his first visit to Mokroe, Mitya must have spent three thousand roubles, “or very little less. Just think what he squandered on those gypsy girls alone! And as for our lousy peasants, it wasn’t a case of flinging half a rouble in the street, he made them presents of twenty-five roubles each, at least, he didn’t give them less. And what a lot of money was simply stolen from him! And if anyone did steal, he did not leave a receipt. How could one catch the thief when he was flinging his money away all the time? Our peasants are robbers, you know; they have no care for their souls. And the way he went on with the girls, our village girls! They’re completely set up since then, I tell you, they used to be poor.” He recalled, in fact, every item of expense and added it all up. So the theory that only fifteen hundred had been spent and the rest had been put aside in a little bag seemed inconceivable.

“I saw three thousand as clear as a penny in his hands, I saw it with my own eyes; I should think I ought to know how to reckon money,” cried Trifon Borissovitch, doing his best to satisfy “his betters.”

When Fetyukovitch had to cross-examine him, he scarcely tried to refute his evidence, but began asking him about an incident at the first carousal at Mokroe, a month before the arrest, when Timofey and another peasant called Akim had picked up on the floor in the passage a hundred roubles dropped by Mitya when he was drunk, and had given them to Trifon Borissovitch and received a rouble each from him for doing so. “Well,” asked the lawyer,” did you give that hundred roubles back to Mr. Karamazov?” Trifon Borissovitch shuffled in vain. . . . He was obliged, after the peasants had been examined, to admit the finding of the hundred roubles, only adding that he had religiously returned it all to Dmitri Fyodorovitch “in perfect honesty, and it’s only because his honour was in liquor at the time, he wouldn’t remember it.” But, as he had denied the incident of the hundred roubles till the peasants had been called to prove it, his evidence as to returning the money to Mitya was naturally regarded with great suspicion. So one of the most dangerous witnesses brought forward by the prosecution was again discredited.

The same thing happened with the Poles. They took up an attitude of pride and independence; they vociferated loudly that they had both been in the service of the Crown, and that “Pan Mitya” had offered them three thousand “to buy their honour,” and that they had seen a large sum of money in his hands. Pan Mussyalovitch introduced a terrible number of Polish words into his sentences, and seeing that this only increased his consequence in the eyes of the President and the prosecutor, grew more and more pompous, and ended by talking in Polish altogether. But Fetyukovitch caught them, too, in his snares. Trifon Borissovitch, recalled, was forced, in spite of his evasions, to admit that Pan Vrublevsky had substituted another pack of cards for the one he had provided, and that Pan Mussyalovitch had cheated during the game. Kalgonov confirmed this, and both the Poles left the witness-box with damaged reputations, amidst laughter from the public.

Then exactly the same thing happened with almost all the most dangerous witnesses. Fetyukovitch succeeded in casting a slur on all of them, and dismissing them with a certain derision. The lawyers and experts were lost in admiration, and were only at a loss to understand what good purpose could be served by it, for all, I repeat, felt that the case for the prosecution could not be refuted, but was growing more and more tragically overwhelming. But from the confidence of the “great magician” they saw that he was serene, and they waited, feeling that “such a man” had not come from Petersburg for nothing, and that he was not a man to return unsuccessful.

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Last updated Friday, March 7, 2014 at 15:49