The gang of prisoners to which Maslova belonged had walked about three thousand three hundred miles. She and the other prisoners condemned for criminal offences had travelled by rail and by steamboats as far as the town of Perm. It was only here that Nekhludoff succeeded in obtaining a permission for her to continue the journey with the political prisoners, as Vera Doukhova, who was among the latter, advised him to do. The journey up to Perm had been very trying to Maslova both morally and physically. Physically, because of the overcrowding, the dirt, and the disgusting vermin, which gave her no peace; morally, because of the equally disgusting men. The men, like the vermin, though they changed at each halting-place, were everywhere alike importunate; they swarmed round her, giving her no rest. Among the women prisoners and the men prisoners, the jailers and the convoy soldiers, the habit of a kind of cynical debauch was so firmly established that unless a female prisoner was willing to utilise her position as a woman she had to be constantly on the watch. To be continually in a state of fear and strife was very trying. And Maslova was specially exposed to attacks, her appearance being attractive and her past known to every one. The decided resistance with which she now met the importunity of all the men seemed offensive to them, and awakened another feeling, that of ill-will towards her. But her position was made a little easier by her intimacy with Theodosia, and Theodosia’s husband, who, having heard of the molestations his wife was subject to, had in Nijni been arrested at his own desire in order to be able to protect her, and was now travelling with the gang as a prisoner. Maslova’s position became much more bearable when she was allowed to join the political prisoners, who were provided with better accomodations, better food, and were treated less rudely, but besides all this Maslova’s condition was much improved because among the political prisoners she was no longer molested by the men, and could live without being reminded of that past which she was so anxious to forget. But the chief advantage of the change lay in the fact that she made the acquaintance of several persons who exercised a decided and most beneficial influence on her character. Maslova was allowed to stop with the political prisoners at all the halting-places, but being a strong and healthy woman she was obliged to march with the criminal convicts. In this way she walked all the way from Tomsk. Two political prisoners also marched with the gang, Mary Pavlovna Schetinina, the girl with the hazel eyes who had attracted Nekhludoff’s attention when he had been to visit Doukhova in prison, and one Simonson, who was on his way to the Takoutsk district, the dishevelled dark young fellow with deep-lying eyes, whom Nekhludoff had also noticed during that visit. Mary Pavlovna was walking because she had given her place on the cart to one of the criminals, a woman expecting to be confined, and Simonson because he did not dare to avail himself of a class privilege.
These three always started early in the morning before the rest of the political prisoners, who followed later on in the carts.
They were ready to start in this way just outside a large town, where a new convoy officer had taken charge of the gang.
It was early on a dull September morning. It kept raining and snowing alternately, and the cold wind blew in sudden gusts. The whole gang of prisoners, consisting of four hundred men and fifty women, was already assembled in the court of the halting station. Some of them were crowding round the chief of the convoy, who was giving to specially appointed prisoners money for two days’ keep to distribute among the rest, while others were purchasing food from women who had been let into the courtyard. One could hear the voices of the prisoners counting their money and making their purchases, and the shrill voices of the women with the food.
Simonson, in his rubber jacket and rubber overshoes fastened with a string over his worsted stockings (he was a vegetarian and would not wear the skin of slaughtered animals), was also in the courtyard waiting for the gang to start. He stood by the porch and jotted down in his notebook a thought that had occurred to him. This was what he wrote: “If a bacteria watched and examined a human nail it would pronounce it inorganic matter, and thus we, examining our globe and watching its crust, pronounce it to be inorganic. This is incorrect.”
Katusha and Mary Pavlovna, both wearing top-boots and with shawls tied round their heads, came out of the building into the courtyard where the women sat sheltered from the wind by the northern wall of the court, and vied with one another, offering their goods, hot meat pie, fish, vermicelli, buckwheat porridge, liver, beef, eggs, milk. One had even a roast pig to offer.
Having bought some eggs, bread, fish, and some rusks, Maslova was putting them into her bag, while Mary Pavlovna was paying the women, when a movement arose among the convicts. All were silent and took their places. The officer came out and began giving the last orders before starting. Everything was done in the usual manner. The prisoners were counted, the chains on their legs examined, and those who were to march in couples linked together with manacles. But suddenly the angry, authoritative voice of the officer shouting something was heard, also the sound of a blow and the crying of a child. All was silent for a moment and then came a hollow murmur from the crowd. Maslova and Mary Pavlovna advanced towards the spot whence the noise proceeded.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 12:00