When they got to the top of the hill bank the driver turned to Nekhludoff.
“Which hotel am I to drive to?”
“Which is the best?”
“Nothing could be better than the Siberian, but Dukeoff’s is also good.”
“Drive to whichever you like.”
The driver again seated himself sideways and drove faster. The town was like all such towns. The same kind of houses with attic windows and green roofs, the same kind of cathedral, the same kind of shops and stores in the principal street, and even the same kind of policemen. Only the houses were almost all of them wooden, and the streets were not paved. In one of the chief streets the driver stopped at the door of an hotel, but there was no room to be had, so he drove to another. And here Nekhludoff, after two months, found himself once again in surroundings such as he had been accustomed to as far as comfort and cleanliness went. Though the room he was shown to was simple enough, yet Nekhludoff felt greatly relieved to be there after two months of post-carts, country inns and halting stations. His first business was to clean himself of the lice which he had never been able to get thoroughly rid of after visiting a halting station. When he had unpacked he went to the Russian bath, after which he made himself fit to be seen in a town, put on a starched shirt, trousers that had got rather creased along the seams, a frock-coat and an overcoat, and drove to the Governor of the district. The hotel-keeper called an isvostchik, whose well-fed Kirghiz horse and vibrating trap soon brought Nekhludoff to the large porch of a big building, in front of which stood sentinels and a policeman. The house had a garden in front, and at the back, among the naked branches of aspen and birch trees, there grew thick and dark green pines and firs. The General was not well, and did not receive; but Nekhludoff asked the footman to hand in his card all the same, and the footman came back with a favourable reply.
“You are asked to come in.”
The hall, the footman, the orderly, the staircase, the dancing-room, with its well-polished floor, were very much the same as in Petersburg, only more imposing and rather dirtier. Nekhludoff was shown into the cabinet.
The General, a bloated, potato-nosed man, with a sanguine disposition, large bumps on his forehead, bald head, and puffs under his eyes, sat wrapped in a Tartar silk dressing-gown smoking a cigarette and sipping his tea out of a tumbler in a silver holder.
“How do you do, sir? Excuse my dressing-gown; it is better so than if I had not received you at all,” he said, pulling up his dressing-gown over his fat neck with its deep folds at the nape. “I am not quite well, and do not go out. What has brought you to our remote region?”
“I am accompanying a gang of prisoners, among whom there is a person closely connected with me, said Nekhludoff, and now I have come to see your Excellency partly in behalf of this person, and partly about another business.” The General took a whiff and a sip of tea, put his cigarette into a malachite ashpan, with his narrow eyes fixed on Nekhludoff, listening seriously. He only interrupted him once to offer him a cigarette.
The General belonged to the learned type of military men who believed that liberal and humane views can be reconciled with their profession. But being by nature a kind and intelligent man, he soon felt the impossibility of such a reconciliation; so as not to feel the inner discord in which he was living, he gave himself up more and more to the habit of drinking, which is so widely spread among military men, and was now suffering from what doctors term alcoholism. He was imbued with alcohol, and if he drank any kind of liquor it made him tipsy. Yet strong drink was an absolute necessity to him, he could not live without it, so he was quite drunk every evening; but had grown so used to this state that he did not reel nor talk any special nonsense. And if he did talk nonsense, it was accepted as words of wisdom because of the important and high position which he occupied. Only in the morning, just at the time Nekhludoff came to see him, he was like a reasonable being, could understand what was said to him, and fulfil more or less aptly a proverb he was fond of repeating: “He’s tipsy, but he’s wise, so he’s pleasant in two ways.”
The higher authorities knew he was a drunkard, but he was more educated than the rest, though his education had stopped at the spot where drunkenness had got hold of him. He was bold, adroit, of imposing appearance, and showed tact even when tipsy; therefore, he was appointed, and was allowed to retain so public and responsible an office.
Nekhludoff told him that the person he was interested in was a woman, that she was sentenced, though innocent, and that a petition had been sent to the Emperor in her behalf.
“Yes, well?” said the General.
“I was promised in Petersburg that the news concerning her fate should be sent to me not later than this month and to this place-”
The General stretched his hand with its stumpy fingers towards the table, and rang a bell, still looking at Nekhludoff and puffing at his cigarette.
“So I would like to ask you that this woman should he allowed to remain here until the answer to her petition comes.”
The footman, an orderly in uniform, came in.
“Ask if Anna Vasilievna is up,” said the General to the orderly, “and bring some more tea.” Then, turning to Nekhludoff, “Yes, and what else?”
“My other request concerns a political prisoner who is with the same gang.”
“Dear me,” said the General, with a significant shake of the head.
“He is seriously ill — dying, and he will probably he left here in the hospital, so one of the women prisoners would like to stay behind with him.”
“She is no relation of his?”
“No, but she is willing to marry him if that will enable her to remain with him.”
The General looked fixedly with twinkling eyes at his interlocutor, and, evidently with a wish to discomfit him, listened, smoking in silence.
When Nekhludoff had finished, the General took a book off the table, and, wetting his finger, quickly turned over the pages and found the statute relating to marriage.
“What is she sentenced to?” he asked, looking up from the book.
“She? To hard labour.”
“Well, then, the position of one sentenced to that cannot be bettered by marriage.”
“Yes, but —”
“Excuse me. Even if a free man should marry her, she would have to serve her term. The question in such cases is, whose is the heavier punishment, hers or his?”
“They are both sentenced to hard labour.”
“Very well; so they are quits,” said the General, with a laugh. “She’s got what he has, only as he is sick he may be left behind, and of course what can be done to lighten his fate shall be done. But as for her, even if she did marry him, she could not remain behind.”
“The Generaless is having her coffee,” the footman announced.
The General nodded and continued:
“However, I shall think about it. What are their names? Put them down here.”
Nekhludoff wrote down the names.
Nekhludoff’s request to be allowed to see the dying man the General answered by saying, “Neither can I do that. Of course I do not suspect you, but you take an interest in him and in the others, and you have money, and here with us anything can be done with money. I have been told to put down bribery. But how can I put down bribery when everybody takes bribes? And the lower their rank the more ready they are to be bribed. How can one find it out across more than three thousand miles? There any official is a little Tsar, just as I am here,” and he laughed. “You have in all likelihood been to see the political prisoners; you gave money and got permission to see them,” he said, with a smile. “Is it not so?”
“Yes, it is.”
“I quite understand that you had to do it. You pity a political prisoner and wish to see him. And the inspector or the convoy soldier accepts, because he has a salary of twice twenty copecks and a family, and he can’t help accepting it. In his place and yours I should have acted in the same way as you and he did. But in my position I do not permit myself to swerve an inch from the letter of the law, just because I am a man, and might be influenced by pity. But I am a member of the executive, and I have been placed in a position of trust on certain conditions, and these conditions I must carry out. Well, so this business is finished. And now let us hear what is going on in the metropolis.” And the General began questioning with the evident desire to hear the news and to show how very human he was.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 12:00