When they had passed the bachelors’ room the sergeant who accompanied Nekhludoff left him, promising to come for him before the inspection would take place. As soon as the sergeant was gone a prisoner, quickly stepping with his bare feet and holding up the chains, came close up to Nekhludoff, enveloping him in the strong, acid smell of perspiration, and said in a mysterious whisper:
“Help the lad, sir; he’s got into an awful mess. Been drinking. To-day he’s given his name as Karmanoff at the inspection. Take his part, sir. We dare not, or they’ll kill us,” and looking uneasily round he turned away.
This is what had happened. The criminal Kalmanoff had persuaded a young fellow who resembled him in appearance and was sentenced to exile to change names with him and go to the mines instead of him, while he only went to exile. Nekhludoff knew all this. Some convict had told him about this exchange the week before. He nodded as a sign that he understood and would do what was in his power, and continued his way without looking round.
Nekhludoff knew this convict, and was surprised by his action. When in Ekaterinburg the convict had asked Nekhludoff to get a permission for his wife to follow him. The convict was a man of medium size and of the most ordinary peasant type, about thirty years old. He was condemned to hard labour for an attempt to murder and rob. His name was Makar Devkin. His crime was a very curious one. In the account he gave of it to Nekhludoff, he said it was not his but his devil’s doing. He said that a traveller had come to his father’s house and hired his sledge to drive him to a village thirty miles off for two roubles. Makar’s father told him to drive the stranger. Makar harnessed the horse, dressed, and sat down to drink tea with the stranger. The stranger related at the tea-table that he was going to be married and had five hundred roubles, which he had earned in Moscow, with him. When he had heard this, Makar went out into the yard and put an axe into the sledge under the straw. “And I did not myself know why I was taking the axe,” he said. “‘Take the axe,’ says he, and I took it. We got in and started. We drove along all right; I even forgot about the axe. Well, we were getting near the village; only about four miles more to go. The way from the cross-road to the high road was up hill, and I got out. I walked behind the sledge and he whispers to me, ‘What are you thinking about? When you get to the top of the hill you will meet people along the highway, and then there will be the village. He will carry the money away. If you mean to do it, now’s the time.’ I stooped over the sledge as if to arrange the straw, and the axe seemed to jump into my hand of itself. The man turned round. ‘What are you doing?’ I lifted the axe and tried to knock him down, but he was quick, jumped out, and took hold of my hands. ‘What are you doing, you villain?’ He threw me down into the snow, and I did not even struggle, but gave in at once. He bound my arms with his girdle, and threw me into the sledge, and took me straight to the police station. I was imprisoned and tried. The commune gave me a good character, said that I was a good man, and that nothing wrong had been noticed about me. The masters for whom I worked also spoke well of me, but we had no money to engage a lawyer, and so I was condemned to four years’ hard labour.”
It was this man who, wishing to save a fellow-villager, knowing that he was risking his life thereby, told Nekhludoff the prisoner’s secret, for doing which (if found out) he should certainly be throttled.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 12:00