Resurrection, by Leo Tolstoy

Chapter XL.

The Fundamental Law of Human Life.

The heat in the large third-class carriage, which had been standing in the burning sun all day, was so great that Nekhludoff did not go in, but stopped on the little platform behind the carriage which formed a passage to the next one. But there was not a breath of fresh air here either, and Nekhludoff breathed freely only when the train had passed the buildings and the draught blew across the platform.

“Yes, killed,” he repeated to himself, the words he had used to his sister. And in his imagination in the midst of all other impressions there arose with wonderful clearness the beautiful face of the second dead convict, with the smile of the lips, the severe expression of the brows, and the small, firm ear below the shaved bluish skull.

And what seemed terrible was that he had been murdered, and no one knew who had murdered him. Yet he had been murdered. He was led out like all the rest of the prisoners by Maslennikoff’s orders. Maslennikoff had probably given the order in the usual manner, had signed with his stupid flourish the paper with the printed heading, and most certainly would not consider himself guilty. Still less would the careful doctor who examined the convicts consider himself guilty. He had performed his duty accurately, and had separated the weak. How could he have foreseen this terrible heat, or the fact that they would start so late in the day and in such crowds? The prison inspector? But the inspector had only carried into execution the order that on a given day a certain number of exiles and convicts — men and women — had to be sent off. The convoy officer could not be guilty either, for his business was to receive a certain number of persons in a certain place, and to deliver up the same number. He conducted them in the usual manner, and could not foresee that two such strong men as those Nekhludoff saw would not be able to stand it and would die. No one is guilty, and yet the men have been murdered by these people who are not guilty of their murder.

“All this comes,” Nekhludoff thought, “from the fact that all these people, governors, inspectors, police officers, and men, consider that there are circumstances in which human relations are not necessary between human beings. All these men, Maslennikoff, and the inspector, and the convoy officer, if they were not governor, inspector, officer, would have considered twenty times before sending people in such heat in such a mass — would have stopped twenty times on the way, and, seeing that a man was growing weak, gasping for breath, would have led him into the shade, would have given him water and let him rest, and if an accident had still occurred they would have expressed pity. But they not only did not do it, but hindered others from doing it, because they considered not men and their duty towards them but only the office they themselves filled, and held what that office demanded of them to be above human relations. That’s what it is,” Nekhludoff went on in his thoughts. “If one acknowledges but for a single hour that anything can be more important than love for one’s fellowmen, even in some one exceptional case, any crime can be committed without a feeling of guilt.”

Nekhludoff was so engrossed by his thoughts that he did not notice how the weather changed. The sun was covered over by a low-hanging, ragged cloud. A compact, light grey cloud was rapidly coming from the west, and was already falling in heavy, driving rain on the fields and woods far in the distance. Moisture, coming from the cloud, mixed with the air. Now and then the cloud was rent by flashes of lightning, and peals of thunder mingled more and more often with the rattling of the train. The cloud came nearer and nearer, the rain-drops driven by the wind began to spot the platform and Nekhludoff’s coat; and he stepped to the other side of the little platform, and, inhaling the fresh, moist air — filled with the smell of corn and wet earth that had long been waiting for rain — he stood looking at the gardens, the woods, the yellow rye fields, the green oatfields, the dark-green strips of potatoes in bloom, that glided past. Everything looked as if covered over with varnish — the green turned greener, the yellow yellower, the black blacker.

“More! more!” said Nekhludoff, gladdened by the sight of gardens and fields revived by the beneficent shower. The shower did not last long. Part of the cloud had come down in rain, part passed over, and the last fine drops fell straight on to the earth. The sun reappeared, everything began to glisten, and in the east — not very high above the horizon — appeared a bright rainbow, with the violet tint very distinct and broken only at one end.

“Why, what was I thinking about?” Nekhludoff asked himself when all these changes in nature were over, and the train ran into a cutting between two high banks.

“Oh! I was thinking that all those people (inspector, convoy men — all those in the service) are for the greater part kind people — cruel only because they are serving.” He recalled Maslennikoff’s indifference when he told him about what was being done in the prison, the inspector’s severity, the cruelty of the convoy officer when he refused places on the carts to those who asked for them, and paid no attention to the fact that there was a woman in travail in the train. All these people were evidently invulnerable and impregnable to the simplest feelings of compassion only because they held offices. “As officials they were impermeable to the feelings of humanity, as this paved ground is impermeable to the rain.” Thus thought Nekhludoff as he looked at the railway embankment paved with stones of different colours, down which the water was running in streams instead of soaking into the earth. “Perhaps it is necessary to pave the banks with stones, but it is sad to look at the ground, which might be yielding corn, grass, bushes, or trees in the same way as the ground visible up there is doing — deprived of vegetation, and so it is with men,” thought Nekhludoff. “Perhaps these governors, inspectors, policemen, are needed, but it is terrible to see men deprived of the chief human attribute, that of love and sympathy for one another. The thing is,” he continued, “that these people consider lawful what is not lawful, and do not consider the eternal, immutable law, written in the hearts of men by God, as law. That is why I feel so depressed when I am with these people. I am simply afraid of them, and really they are terrible, more terrible than robbers. A robber might, after all, feel pity, but they can feel no pity, they are inured against pity as these stones are against vegetation. That is what makes them terrible. It is said that the Pougatcheffs, the Razins [leaders of rebellions in Russia: Stonka Razin in the 17th and Pougatcheff in the 18th century] are terrible. These are a thousand times more terrible,” he continued, in his thoughts. “If a psychological problem were set to find means of making men of our time — Christian, humane, simple, kind people — perform the most horrible crimes without feeling guilty, only one solution could be devised: to go on doing what is being done. It is only necessary that these people should he governors, inspectors, policemen; that they should be fully convinced that there is a kind of business, called government service, which allows men to treat other men as things, without human brotherly relations with them, and also that these people should be so linked together by this government service that the responsibility for the results of their actions should not fall on any one of them separately. Without these conditions, the terrible acts I witnessed to-day would be impossible in our times. It all lies in the fact that men think there are circumstances in which one may deal with human beings without love; and there are no such circumstances. One may deal with things without love. One may cut down trees, make bricks, hammer iron without love; but you cannot deal with men without it, just as one cannot deal with bees without being careful. If you deal carelessly with bees you will injure them, and will yourself be injured. And so with men. It cannot be otherwise, because natural love is the fundamental law of human life. It is true that a man cannot force another to love him, as he can force him to work for him; but it does not follow that a man may deal with men without love, especially to demand anything from them. If you feel no love, sit still,” Nekhludoff thought; “occupy yourself with things, with yourself, with anything you like, only not with men. You can only eat without injuring yourself when you feel inclined to eat, so you can only deal with men usefully when you love. Only let yourself deal with a man without love, as I did yesterday with my brother-in-law, and there are no limits to the suffering you will bring on yourself, as all my life proves. Yes, yes, it is so,” thought Nekhludoff; “it is good; yes, it is good,” he repeated, enjoying the freshness after the torturing heat, and conscious of having attained to the fullest clearness on a question that had long occupied him.

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Last updated Tuesday, March 4, 2014 at 20:04