On coming into the Law Courts Nekhludoff met the usher of yesterday, who to-day seemed to him much to be pitied, in the corridor, and asked him where those prisoners who had been sentenced were kept, and to whom one had to apply for permission to visit them. The usher told him that the condemned prisoners were kept in different places, and that, until they received their sentence in its final form, the permission to visit them depended on the president. “I’ll come and call you myself, and take you to the president after the session. The president is not even here at present. After the session! And now please come in; we are going to commence.”
Nekhludoff thanked the usher for his kindness, and went into the jurymen’s room. As he was approaching the room, the other jurymen were just leaving it to go into the court. The merchant had again partaken of a little refreshment, and was as merry as the day before, and greeted Nekhludoff like an old friend. And to-day Peter Gerasimovitch did not arouse any unpleasant feelings in Nekhludoff by his familiarity and his loud laughter. Nekhludoff would have liked to tell all the jurymen about his relations to yesterday’s prisoner. “By rights,” he thought, “I ought to have got up yesterday during the trial and disclosed my guilt.”
He entered the court with the other jurymen, and witnessed the same procedure as the day before.
“The judges are coming,” was again proclaimed, and again three men, with embroidered collars, ascended the platform, and there was the same settling of the jury on the high-backed chairs, the same gendarmes, the same portraits, the same priest, and Nekhludoff felt that, though he knew what he ought to do, he could not interrupt all this solemnity. The preparations for the trials were just the same as the day before, excepting that the swearing in of the jury and the president’s address to them were omitted.
The case before the Court this day was one of burglary. The prisoner, guarded by two gendarmes with naked swords, was a thin, narrow-chested lad of 20, with a bloodless, sallow face, dressed in a grey cloak. He sat alone in the prisoner’s dock. This boy was accused of having, together with a companion, broken the lock of a shed and stolen several old mats valued at 3 roubles [the rouble is worth a little over two shillings, and contains 100 copecks] and 67 copecks. According to the indictment, a policeman had stopped this boy as he was passing with his companion, who was carrying the mats on his shoulder. The boy and his companion confessed at once, and were both imprisoned. The boy’s companion, a locksmith, died in prison, and so the boy was being tried alone. The old mats were lying on the table as the objects of material evidence. The business was conducted just in the same manner as the day before, with the whole armoury of evidence, proofs, witnesses, swearing in, questions, experts, and cross-examinations. In answer to every question put to him by the president, the prosecutor, or the advocate, the policeman (one of the witnesses) in variably ejected the words: “just so,” or “Can’t tell.” Yet, in spite of his being stupefied, and rendered a mere machine by military discipline, his reluctance to speak about the arrest of this prisoner was evident. Another witness, an old house proprietor, and owner of the mats, evidently a rich old man, when asked whether the mats were his, reluctantly identified them as such. When the public prosecutor asked him what he meant to do with these mats, what use they were to him, he got angry, and answered: “The devil take those mats; I don’t want them at all. Had I known there would be all this bother about them I should not have gone looking for them, but would rather have added a ten-rouble note or two to them, only not to be dragged here and pestered with questions. I have spent a lot on isvostchiks. Besides, I am not well. I have been suffering from rheumatism for the last seven years.” It was thus the witness spoke.
The accused himself confessed everything, and looking round stupidly, like an animal that is caught, related how it had all happened. Still the public prosecutor, drawing up his shoulders as he had done the day before, asked subtle questions calculated to catch a cunning criminal.
In his speech he proved that the theft had been committed from a dwelling-place, and a lock had been broken; and that the boy, therefore, deserved a heavy punishment. The advocate appointed by the Court proved that the theft was not committed from a dwelling-place, and that, though the crime was a serious one, the prisoner was not so very dangerous to society as the prosecutor stated. The president assumed the role of absolute neutrality in the same way as he had done on the previous day, and impressed on the jury facts which they all knew and could not help knowing. Then came an interval, just as the day before, and they smoked; and again the usher called out “The judges are coming,” and in the same way the two gendarmes sat trying to keep awake and threatening the prisoner with their naked weapons.
The proceedings showed that this boy was apprenticed by his father at a tobacco factory, where he remained five years. This year he had been discharged by the owner after a strike, and, having lost his place, he wandered about the town without any work, drinking all he possessed. In a traktir [cheap restaurant] he met another like himself, who had lost his place before the prisoner had, a locksmith by trade and a drunkard. One night, those two, both drunk, broke the lock of a shed and took the first thing they happened to lay hands on. They confessed all and were put in prison, where the locksmith died while awaiting the trial. The boy was now being tried as a dangerous creature, from whom society must be protected.
“Just as dangerous a creature as yesterday’s culprit,” thought Nekhludoff, listening to all that was going on before him. “They are dangerous, and we who judge them? I, a rake, an adulterer, a deceiver. We are not dangerous. But, even supposing that this boy is the most dangerous of all that are here in the court, what should he done from a common-sense point of view when he has been caught? It is clear that he is not an exceptional evil-doer, but a most ordinary boy; every one sees it — and that he has become what he is simply because he got into circumstances that create such characters, and, therefore, to prevent such a boy from going wrong the circumstances that create these unfortunate beings must be done away with.
“But what do we do? We seize one such lad who happens to get caught, knowing well that there are thousands like him whom we have not caught, and send him to prison, where idleness, or most unwholesome, useless labour is forced on him, in company of others weakened and ensnared by the lives they have led. And then we send him, at the public expense, from the Moscow to the Irkoutsk Government, in company with the most depraved of men.
“But we do nothing to destroy the conditions in which people like these are produced; on the contrary, we support the establishments where they are formed. These establishments are well known: factories, mills, workshops, public-houses, gin-shops, brothels. And we do not destroy these places, but, looking at them as necessary, we support and regulate them. We educate in this way not one, but millions of people, and then catch one of them and imagine that we have done something, that we have guarded ourselves, and nothing more can be expected of us. Have we not sent him from the Moscow to the Irkoutsk Government?” Thus thought Nekhludoff with unusual clearness and vividness, sitting in his high-backed chair next to the colonel, and listening to the different intonations of the advocates’, prosecutor’s, and president’s voices, and looking at their self-confident gestures. “And how much and what hard effort this pretence requires,” continued Nekhludoff in his mind, glancing round the enormous room, the portraits, lamps, armchairs, uniforms, the thick walls and large windows; and picturing to himself the tremendous size of the building, and the still more ponderous dimensions of the whole of this organisation, with its army of officials, scribes, watchmen, messengers, not only in this place, but all over Russia, who receive wages for carrying on this comedy which no one needs. “Supposing we spent one-hundredth of these efforts helping these castaways, whom we now only regard as hands and bodies, required by us for our own peace and comfort. Had some one chanced to take pity on him and given some help at the time when poverty made them send him to town, it might have been sufficient,” Nekhludoff thought, looking at the boy’s piteous face. “Or even later, when, after 12 hours’ work at the factory, he was going to the public-house, led away by his companions, had some one then come and said, ‘Don’t go, Vania; it is not right,’ he would not have gone, nor got into bad ways, and would not have done any wrong.
“But no; no one who would have taken pity on him came across this apprentice in the years he lived like a poor little animal in the town, and with his hair cut close so as not to breed vermin, and ran errands for the workmen. No, all he heard and saw, from the older workmen and his companions, since he came to live in town, was that he who cheats, drinks, swears, who gives another a thrashing, who goes on the loose, is a fine fellow. Ill, his constitution undermined by unhealthy labour, drink, and debauchery — bewildered as in a dream, knocking aimlessly about town, he gets into some sort of a shed, and takes from there some old mats, which nobody needs — and here we, all of us educated people, rich or comfortably off, meet together, dressed in good clothes and fine uniforms, in a splendid apartment, to mock this unfortunate brother of ours whom we ourselves have ruined.
“Terrible! It is difficult to say whether the cruelty or the absurdity is greater, but the one and the other seem to reach their climax.”
Nekhludoff thought all this, no longer listening to what was going on, and he was horror-struck by that which was being revealed to him. He could not understand why he had not been able to see all this before, and why others were unable to see it.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 12:00