The prison was a long way off and it was getting late, so Nekhludoff took an isvostchik. The isvostchik, a middle-aged man with an intelligent and kind face, turned round towards Nekhludoff as they were driving along one of the streets and pointed to a huge house that was being built there.
“Just see what a tremendous house they have begun to build,” he said, as if he was partly responsible for the building of the house and proud of it. The house was really immense and was being built in a very original style. The strong pine beams of the scaffolding were firmly fixed together with iron bands and a plank wall separated the building from the street.
On the boards of the scaffolding workmen, all bespattered with plaster, moved hither and thither like ants. Some were laying bricks, some hewing stones, some carrying up the heavy hods and pails and bringing them down empty. A fat and finely-dressed gentleman — probably the architect — stood by the scaffolding, pointing upward and explaining something to a contractor, a peasant from the Vladimir Government, who was respectfully listening to him. Empty carts were coming out of the gate by which the architect and the contractor were standing, and loaded ones were going in. “And how sure they all are — those that do the work as well as those that make them do it — that it ought to be; that while their wives at home, who are with child, are labouring beyond their strength, and their children with the patchwork caps, doomed soon to the cold grave, smile with suffering and contort their little legs, they must be building this stupid and useless palace for some stupid and useless person — one of those who spoil and rob them,” Nekhludoff thought, while looking at the house.
“Yes, it is a stupid house,” he said, uttering his thought out aloud.
“Why stupid?” replied the isvostchik, in an offended tone. “Thanks to it, the people get work; it’s not stupid.”
“But the work is useless.”
“It can’t be useless, or why should it be done?” said the isvostchik. “The people get bread by it.”
Nekhludoff was silent, and it would have been difficult to talk because of the clatter the wheels made.
When they came nearer the prison, and the isvostchik turned off the paved on to the macadamised road, it became easier to talk, and he again turned to Nekhludoff.
“And what a lot of these people are flocking to the town nowadays; it’s awful,” he said, turning round on the box and pointing to a party of peasant workmen who were coming towards them, carrying saws, axes, sheepskins, coats, and bags strapped to their shoulders.
“More than in other years?” Nekhludoff asked.
“By far. This year every place is crowded, so that it’s just terrible. The employers just fling the workmen about like chaff. Not a job to be got.”
“Why is that?”
“They’ve increased. There’s no room for them.”
“Well, what if they have increased? Why do not they stay in the village?”
“There’s nothing for them to do in the village — no land to be had.”
Nekhludoff felt as one does when touching a sore place. It feels as if the bruised part was always being hit; yet it is only because the place is sore that the touch is felt.
“Is it possible that the same thing is happening everywhere?” he thought, and began questioning the isvostchik about the quantity of land in his village, how much land the man himself had, and why he had left the country.
“We have a desiatin per man, sir,” he said. “Our family have three men’s shares of the land. My father and a brother are at home, and manage the land, and another brother is serving in the army. But there’s nothing to manage. My brother has had thoughts of coming to Moscow, too.”
“And cannot land be rented?”
“How’s one to rent it nowadays? The gentry, such as they were, have squandered all theirs. Men of business have got it all into their own hands. One can’t rent it from them. They farm it themselves. We have a Frenchman ruling in our place; he bought the estate from our former landlord, and won’t let it — and there’s an end of it.”
“Who’s that Frenchman?”
“Dufour is the Frenchman’s name. Perhaps you’ve heard of him. He makes wigs for the actors in the big theatre; it is a good business, so he’s prospering. He bought it from our lady, the whole of the estate, and now he has us in his power; he just rides on us as he pleases. The Lord be thanked, he is a good man himself; only his wife, a Russian, is such a brute that — God have mercy on us. She robs the people. It’s awful. Well, here’s the prison. Am I to drive you to the entrance? I’m afraid they’ll not let us do it, though.”
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 12:00