The man on whom depended the easing of the fate of the Petersburg prisoners was an old General of repute — a baron of German descent, who, as it was said of him, had outlived his wits. He had received a profusion of orders, but only wore one of them, the Order of the White Cross. He had received this order, which he greatly valued, while serving in the Caucasus, because a number of Russian peasants, with their hair cropped, and dressed in uniform and armed with guns and bayonets, had killed at his command more than a thousand men who were defending their liberty, their homes, and their families. Later on he served in Poland, and there also made Russian peasants commit many different crimes, and got more orders and decorations for his uniform. Then he served somewhere else, and now that he was a weak, old man he had this position, which insured him a good house, an income and respect. He strictly observed all the regulations which were prescribed “from above,” and was very zealous in the fulfilment of these regulations, to which he ascribed a special importance, considering that everything else in the world might be changed except the regulations prescribed “from above.” His duty was to keep political prisoners, men and women, in solitary confinement in such a way that half of them perished in 10 years’ time, some going out of their minds, some dying of consumption, some committing suicide by starving themselves to death, cutting their veins with bits of glass, hanging, or burning themselves to death.
The old General was not ignorant of this; it all happened within his knowledge; but these cases no more touched his conscience than accidents brought on by thunderstorms, floods, etc. These cases occurred as a consequence of the fulfilment of regulations prescribed “from above” by His Imperial Majesty. These regulations had to be carried out without fail, and therefore it was absolutely useless to think of the consequences of their fulfilment. The old General did not even allow himself to think of such things, counting it his patriotic duty as a soldier not to think of them for fear of getting weak in the carrying out of these, according to his opinion, very important obligations. Once a week the old General made the round of the cells, one of the duties of his position, and asked the prisoners if they had any requests to make. The prisoners had all sorts of requests. He listened to them quietly, in impenetrable silence, and never fulfilled any of their requests, because they were all in disaccord with the regulations. Just as Nekhludoff drove up to the old General’s house, the high notes of the bells on the belfry clock chimed “Great is the Lord,” and then struck two. The sound of these chimes brought back to Nekhludoff’s mind what he had read in the notes of the Decembrists [the Decembrists were a group who attempted, but failed, to put an end to absolutism in Russia at the time of the accession of Nicholas the First] about the way this sweet music repeated every hour re-echoes in the hearts of those imprisoned for life.
Meanwhile the old General was sitting in his darkened drawing-room at an inlaid table, turning a saucer on a piece of paper with the aid of a young artist, the brother of one of his subordinates. The thin, weak, moist fingers of the artist were pressed against the wrinkled and stiff-jointed fingers of the old General, and the hands joined in this manner were moving together with the saucer over a paper that had all the letters of the alphabet written on it. The saucer was answering the questions put by the General as to how souls will recognise each other after death.
When Nekhludoff sent in his card by an orderly acting as footman, the soul of Joan of Arc was speaking by the aid of the saucer. The soul of Joan of Arc had already spelt letter by letter the words: “They well knew each other,” and these words had been written down. When the orderly came in the saucer had stopped first on b, then on y, and began jerking hither and thither. This jerking was caused by the General’s opinion that the next letter should be b, i.e., Joan of Arc ought to say that the souls will know each other by being cleansed of all that is earthly, or something of the kind, clashing with the opinion of the artist, who thought the next letter should be l, i.e., that the souls should know each other by light emanating from their astral bodies. The General, with his bushy grey eyebrows gravely contracted, sat gazing at the hands on the saucer, and, imagining that it was moving of its own accord, kept pulling the saucer towards b. The pale-faced young artist, with his thin hair combed back behind his cars, was looking with his lifeless blue eyes into a dark corner of the drawing-room, nervously moving his lips and pulling the saucer towards l.
The General made a wry face at the interruption, but after a moment’s pause he took the card, put on his pince-nez, and, uttering a groan, rose, in spite of the pain in his back, to his full height, rubbing his numb fingers.
“Ask him into the study.”
“With your excellency’s permission I will finish it alone,” said the artist, rising. “I feel the presence.”
“All right, finish alone,” the General said, severely and decidedly, and stepped quickly, with big, firm and measured strides, into his study.
“Very pleased to see you,” said the General to Nekhludoff, uttering the friendly words in a gruff tone, and pointing to an armchair by the side of the writing-table. “Have you been in Petersburg long?”
Nekhludoff replied that he had only lately arrived.
“Is the Princess, your mother, well?”
“My mother is dead.”
“Forgive me; I am very sorry. My son told me he had met you.”
The General’s son was making the same kind of career for himself that the father had done, and, having passed the Military Academy, was now serving in the Inquiry Office, and was very proud of his duties there. His occupation was the management of Government spies.
“Why, I served with your father. We were friends — comrades. And you; are you also in the Service?”
“No, I am not.”
The General bent his head disapprovingly.
“I have a request to make, General.”
“Very pleased. In what way can I be of service to you? If my request is out of place pray pardon me. But I am obliged to make it.”
“What is it?”
“There is a certain Gourkevitch imprisoned in the fortress; his mother asks for an interview with him, or at least to be allowed to send him some books.”
The General expressed neither satisfaction nor dissatisfaction at Nekhludoff’s request, but bending his head on one side he closed his eyes as if considering. In reality he was not considering anything, and was not even interested in Nekhludoff’s questions, well knowing that he would answer them according to the law. He was simply resting mentally and not thinking at all.
“You see,” he said at last, “this does not depend on me. There is a regulation, confirmed by His Majesty, concerning interviews; and as to books, we have a library, and they may have what is permitted.”
“Yes, but he wants scientific books; he wishes to study.”
“Don’t you believe it,” growled the General. “It’s not study he wants; it is just only restlessness.”
“But what is to be done? They must occupy their time somehow in their hard condition,” said Nekhludoff.
“They are always complaining,” said the General. “We know them.”
He spoke of them in a general way, as if they were all a specially bad race of men. “They have conveniences here which can be found in few places of confinement,” said the General, and he began to enumerate the comforts the prisoners enjoyed, as if the aim of the institution was to give the people imprisoned there a comfortable home.
“It is true it used to be rather rough, but now they are very well kept here,” he continued. “They have three courses for dinner — and one of them meat — cutlets, or rissoles; and on Sundays they get a fourth — a sweet dish. God grant every Russian may eat as well as they do.”
Like all old people, the General, having once got on to a familiar topic, enumerated the various proofs he had often given before of the prisoners being exacting and ungrateful.
“They get books on spiritual subjects and old journals. We have a library. Only they rarely read. At first they seem interested, later on the new books remain uncut, and the old ones with their leaves unturned. We tried them,” said the old General, with the dim likeness of a smile. “We put bits of paper in on purpose, which remained just as they had been placed. Writing is also not forbidden,” he continued. “A slate is provided, and a slate pencil, so that they can write as a pastime. They can wipe the slate and write again. But they don’t write, either. Oh, they very soon get quite tranquil. At first they seem restless, but later on they even grow fat and become very quiet.” Thus spoke the General, never suspecting the terrible meaning of his words.
Nekhludoff listened to the hoarse old voice, looked at the stiff limbs, the swollen eyelids under the grey brows, at the old, clean-shaved, flabby jaw, supported by the collar of the military uniform, at the white cross that this man was so proud of, chiefly because he had gained it by exceptionally cruel and extensive slaughter, and knew that it was useless to reply to the old man or to explain the meaning of his own words to him.
He made another effort, and asked about the prisoner Shoustova, for whose release, as he had been informed that morning, orders were given.
“Shoustova — Shoustova? I cannot remember all their names, there are so many of them,” he said, as if reproaching them because there were so many. He rang, and ordered the secretary to be called. While waiting for the latter, he began persuading Nekhludoff to serve, saying that “honest noblemen,” counting himself among the number, “were particularly needed by the Tsar and — the country,” he added, evidently only to round off his sentence. “I am old, yet I am serving still, as well as my strength allows.”
The secretary, a dry, emaciated man, with restless, intelligent eyes, came in and reported that Shoustova was imprisoned in some queer, fortified place, and that he had received no orders concerning her.
“When we get the order we shall let her out the same day. We do not keep them; we do not value their visits much,” said the General, with another attempt at a playful smile, which only distorted his old face.
Nekhludoff rose, trying to keep from expressing the mixed feelings of repugnance and pity which he felt towards this terrible old man. The old man on his part considered that he should not be too severe on the thoughtless and evidently misguided son of his old comrade, and should not leave him without advice.
“Good-bye, my dear fellow; do not take it amiss. It is my affection that makes me say it. Do not keep company with such people as we have at our place here. There are no innocent ones among them. All these people are most immoral. We know them,” he said, in a tone that admitted no possibility of doubt. And he did not doubt, not because the thing was so, but because if it was not so, he would have to admit himself to be not a noble hero living out the last days of a good life, but a scoundrel, who sold, and still continued in his old age to sell, his conscience.
“Best of all, go and serve,” he continued; “the Tsar needs honest men — and the country,” he added. “Well, supposing I and the others refused to serve, as you are doing? Who would be left? Here we are, finding fault with the order of things, and yet not wishing to help the Government.”
With a deep sigh Nekhludoff made a low bow, shook the large, bony hand condescendingly stretched out to him and left the room.
The General shook his head reprovingly, and rubbing his back, he again went into the drawing-room where the artist was waiting for him. He had already written down the answer given by the soul of Joan of Arc. The General put on his pince-nez and read, “Will know one another by light emanating from their astral bodies.”
“Ah,” said the General, with approval, and closed his eyes. “But how is one to know if the light of all is alike?” he asked, and again crossed fingers with the artist on the saucer.
The isvostchik drove Nekhludoff out of the gate.
It is dull here, sir, he said, turning to Nekhludoff. “I almost wished to drive off without waiting for you.”
Nekhludoff agreed. “Yes, it is dull,” and he took a deep breath, and looked up with a sense of relief at the grey clouds that were floating in the sky, and at the glistening ripples made by the boats and steamers on the Neva.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 12:00