This halting station, like all such stations along the Siberian road, was surrounded by a courtyard, fenced in with a palisade of sharp-pointed stakes, and consisted of three one-storied houses. One of them, the largest, with grated windows, was for the prisoners, another for the convoy soldiers, and the third, in which the office was, for the officers.
There were lights in the windows of all the three houses, and, like all such lights, they promised, here in a specially deceptive manner, something cosy inside the walls. Lamps were burning before the porches of the houses and about five lamps more along the walls lit up the yard.
The sergeant led Nekhludoff along a plank which lay across the yard up to the porch of the smallest of the houses.
When he had gone up the three steps of the porch he let Nekhludoff pass before him into the ante-room, in which a small lamp was burning, and which was filled with smoky fumes. By the stove a soldier in a coarse shirt with a necktie and black trousers, and with one top-boot on, stood blowing the charcoal in a somovar, using the other boot as bellows. [The long boots worn in Russia have concertina-like sides, and when held to the chimney of the somovar can be used instead of bellows to make the charcoal inside burn up.] When he saw Nekhludoff, the soldier left the somovar and helped him off with his waterproof; then went into the inner room.
“He has come, your honour.”
“Well, ask him in,” came an angry voice.
“Go in at the door,” said the soldier, and went back to the somovar.
In the next room an officer with fair moustaches and a very red face, dressed in an Austrian jacket that closely fitted his broad chest and shoulders, sat at a covered table, on which were the remains of his dinner and two bottles; there was a strong smell of tobacco and some very strong, cheap scent in the warm room. On seeing Nekhludoff the officer rose and gazed ironically and suspiciously, as it seemed, at the newcomer.
“What is it you want?” he asked, and, not waiting for a reply, he shouted through the open door:
“Bernoff, the somovar! What are you about?”
“Coming at once.”
“You’ll get it ‘at once’ so that you’ll remember it,” shouted the officer, and his eyes flashed.
“I’m coming,” shouted the soldier, and brought in the somovar. Nekhludoff waited while the soldier placed the somovar on the table. When the officer had followed the soldier out of the room with his cruel little eyes looking as if they were aiming where best to hit him, he made the tea, got the four-cornered decanter out of his travelling case and some Albert biscuits, and having placed all this on the cloth he again turned to Nekhludoff. “Well, how can I he of service to you?”
“I should like to be allowed to visit a prisoner,” said Nekhludoff, without sitting down.
“A political one? That’s forbidden by the law,” said the officer.
“The woman I mean is not a political prisoner,” said Nekhludoff.
“Yes. But pray take a scat,” said the officer. Nekhludoff sat down.
“She is not a political one, but at my request she has been allowed by the higher authorities to join the political prisoners —”
“Oh, yes, I know,” interrupted the other; “a little dark one? Well, yes, that can be managed. Won’t you smoke?” He moved a box of cigarettes towards Nekhludoff, and, having carefully poured out two tumblers of tea, he passed one to Nekhludoff. “If you please,” he said.
“Thank you; I should like to see —”
“The night is long. You’ll have plenty of time. I shall order her to be sent out to you.”
“But could I not see her where she is? Why need she be sent for?” Nekhludoff said.
“In to the political prisoners? It is against the law.”
“I have been allowed to go in several times. If there is any danger of my passing anything in to them I could do it through her just as well.”
“Oh, no; she would be searched,” said the officer, and laughed in an unpleasant manner.
“Well, why not search me?”
“All right; we’ll manage without that,” said the officer, opening the decanter, and holding it out towards Nekhludoff’s tumbler of tea. “May I? No? Well, just as you like. When you are living here in Siberia you are too glad to meet an educated person. Our work, as you know, is the saddest, and when one is used to better things it is very hard. The idea they have of us is that convoy officers are coarse, uneducated men, and no one seems to remember that we may have been born for a very different position.”
This officer’s red face, his scents, his rings, and especially his unpleasant laughter disgusted Nekhludoff very much, but to-day, as during the whole of his journey, he was in that serious, attentive state which did not allow him to behave slightingly or disdainfully towards any man, but made him feel the necessity of speaking to every one “entirely,” as he expressed to himself, this relation to men. When he had heard the officer and understood his state of mind, he said in a serious manner:
“I think that in your position, too, some comfort could be found in helping the suffering people,” he said.
“What are their sufferings? You don’t know what these people are.”
“They are not special people,” said Nekhludoff; “they are just such people as others, and some of them are quite innocent.”
“Of course, there are all sorts among them, and naturally one pities them. Others won’t let anything off, but I try to lighten their condition where I can. It’s better that I should suffer, but not they. Others keep to the law in every detail, even as far as to shoot, but I show pity. May I? — Take another,” he said, and poured out another tumbler of tea for Nekhludoff.
“And who is she, this woman that you want to see?” he asked.
“It is an unfortunate woman who got into a brothel, and was there falsely accused of poisoning, and she is a very good woman,” Nekhludoff answered.
The officer shook his head. “Yes, it does happen. I can tell you about a certain Ernma who lived in Kasan. She was a Hungarian by birth, but she had quite Persian eyes,” he continued, unable to restrain a smile at the recollection; “there was so much chic about her that a countess —”
Nekhludoff interrupted the officer and returned to the former topic of conversation.
“I think that you could lighten the condition of the people while they are in your charge. And in acting that way I am sure you would find great joy!” said Nekhludoff, trying to pronounce as distinctly as possible, as he might if talking to a foreigner or a child.
The officer looked at Nekhludoff impatiently, waiting for him to stop so as to continue the tale about the Hungarian with Persian eyes, who evidently presented herself very vividly to his imagination and quite absorbed his attention.
“Yes, of course, this is all quite true,” he said, “and I do pity them; but I should like to tell you about Emma. What do you think she did —?”
“It does not interest me,” said Nekhludoff, “and I will tell you straight, that though I was myself very different at one time, I now hate that kind of relation to women.”
The officer gave Nekhludoff a frightened look.
“Won’t you take some more tea?” he said.
“No, thank you.”
“Bernoff!” the officer called, “take the gentleman to Vakouloff. Tell him to let him into the separate political room. He may remain there till the inspection.”
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 12:00