An exceedingly lean little peasant, in a striped hempen shirt and patched drawers, stands facing the investigating magistrate. His face overgrown with hair and pitted with smallpox, and his eyes scarcely visible under thick, overhanging eyebrows have an expression of sullen moroseness. On his head there is a perfect mop of tangled, unkempt hair, which gives him an even more spider-like air of moroseness. He is barefooted.
“Denis Grigoryev!” the magistrate begins. “Come nearer, and answer my questions. On the seventh of this July the railway watchman, Ivan Semyonovitch Akinfov, going along the line in the morning, found you at the hundred-and-forty-first mile engaged in unscrewing a nut by which the rails are made fast to the sleepers. Here it is, the nut!… With the aforesaid nut he detained you. Was that so?”
“Was this all as Akinfov states?”
“To be sure, it was.”
“Very good; well, what were you unscrewing the nut for?”
“Drop that ‘wha-at’ and answer the question; what were you unscrewing the nut for?”
“If I hadn’t wanted it I shouldn’t have unscrewed it,” croaks Denis, looking at the ceiling.
“What did you want that nut for?”
“The nut? We make weights out of those nuts for our lines.”
“Who is ‘we’?”
“We, people…. The Klimovo peasants, that is.”
“Listen, my man; don’t play the idiot to me, but speak sensibly. It’s no use telling lies here about weights!”
“I’ve never been a liar from a child, and now I’m telling lies…” mutters Denis, blinking. “But can you do without a weight, your honour? If you put live bait or maggots on a hook, would it go to the bottom without a weight?… I am telling lies,” grins Denis…. “What the devil is the use of the worm if it swims on the surface! The perch and the pike and the eel-pout always go to the bottom, and a bait on the surface is only taken by a shillisper, not very often then, and there are no shillispers in our river…. That fish likes plenty of room.”
“Why are you telling me about shillispers?”
“Wha-at? Why, you asked me yourself! The gentry catch fish that way too in our parts. The silliest little boy would not try to catch a fish without a weight. Of course anyone who did not understand might go to fish without a weight. There is no rule for a fool.”
“So you say you unscrewed this nut to make a weight for your fishing line out of it?”
“What else for? It wasn’t to play knuckle-bones with!”
“But you might have taken lead, a bullet… a nail of some sort….”
“You don’t pick up lead in the road, you have to buy it, and a nail’s no good. You can’t find anything better than a nut…. It’s heavy, and there’s a hole in it.”
“He keeps pretending to be a fool! as though he’d been born yesterday or dropped from heaven! Don’t you understand, you blockhead, what unscrewing these nuts leads to? If the watchman had not noticed it the train might have run off the rails, people would have been killed—you would have killed people.”
“God forbid, your honour! What should I kill them for? Are we heathens or wicked people? Thank God, good gentlemen, we have lived all our lives without ever dreaming of such a thing…. Save, and have mercy on us, Queen of Heaven!… What are you saying?”
“And what do you suppose railway accidents do come from? Unscrew two or three nuts and you have an accident.”
Denis grins, and screws up his eye at the magistrate incredulously.
“Why! how many years have we all in the village been unscrewing nuts, and the Lord has been merciful; and you talk of accidents, killing people. If I had carried away a rail or put a log across the line, say, then maybe it might have upset the train, but… pouf! a nut!”
“But you must understand that the nut holds the rail fast to the sleepers!”
“We understand that…. We don’t unscrew them all… we leave some…. We don’t do it thoughtlessly… we understand….”
Denis yawns and makes the sign of the cross over his mouth.
“Last year the train went off the rails here,” says the magistrate. “Now I see why!”
“What do you say, your honour?”
“I am telling you that now I see why the train went off the rails last year…. I understand!”
“That’s what you are educated people for, to understand, you kind gentlemen. The Lord knows to whom to give understanding…. Here you have reasoned how and what, but the watchman, a peasant like ourselves, with no understanding at all, catches one by the collar and hauls one along…. You should reason first and then haul me off. It’s a saying that a peasant has a peasant’s wit…. Write down, too, your honour, that he hit me twice—in the jaw and in the chest.”
“When your hut was searched they found another nut…. At what spot did you unscrew that, and when?”
“You mean the nut which lay under the red box?”
“I don’t know where it was lying, only it was found. When did you unscrew it?”
“I didn’t unscrew it; Ignashka, the son of one-eyed Semyon, gave it me. I mean the one which was under the box, but the one which was in the sledge in the yard Mitrofan and I unscrewed together.”
“Mitrofan Petrov…. Haven’t you heard of him? He makes nets in our village and sells them to the gentry. He needs a lot of those nuts. Reckon a matter of ten for each net.”
“Listen. Article 1081 of the Penal Code lays down that every wilful damage of the railway line committed when it can expose the traffic on that line to danger, and the guilty party knows that an accident must be caused by it… (Do you understand? Knows! And you could not help knowing what this unscrewing would lead to…) is liable to penal servitude.”
“Of course, you know best…. We are ignorant people…. What do we understand?”
“You understand all about it! You are lying, shamming!”
“What should I lie for? Ask in the village if you don’t believe me. Only a bleak is caught without a weight, and there is no fish worse than a gudgeon, yet even that won’t bite without a weight.”
“You’d better tell me about the shillisper next,” said the magistrate, smiling.
“There are no shillispers in our parts…. We cast our line without a weight on the top of the water with a butterfly; a mullet may be caught that way, though that is not often.”
“Come, hold your tongue.”
A silence follows. Denis shifts from one foot to the other, looks at the table with the green cloth on it, and blinks his eyes violently as though what was before him was not the cloth but the sun. The magistrate writes rapidly.
“Can I go?” asks Denis after a long silence.
“No. I must take you under guard and send you to prison.”
Denis leaves off blinking and, raising his thick eyebrows, looks inquiringly at the magistrate.
“How do you mean, to prison? Your honour! I have no time to spare, I must go to the fair; I must get three roubles from Yegor for some tallow!…”
“Hold your tongue; don’t interrupt.”
“To prison…. If there was something to go for, I’d go; but just to go for nothing! What for? I haven’t stolen anything, I believe, and I’ve not been fighting…. If you are in doubt about the arrears, your honour, don’t believe the elder…. You ask the agent… he’s a regular heathen, the elder, you know.”
“Hold your tongue.”
“I am holding my tongue, as it is,” mutters Denis; “but that the elder has lied over the account, I’ll take my oath for it…. There are three of us brothers: Kuzma Grigoryev, then Yegor Grigoryev, and me, Denis Grigoryev.”
“You are hindering me…. Hey, Semyon,” cries the magistrate, “take him away!”
“There are three of us brothers,” mutters Denis, as two stalwart soldiers take him and lead him out of the room. “A brother is not responsible for a brother. Kuzma does not pay, so you, Denis, must answer for it…. Judges indeed! Our master the general is dead—the Kingdom of Heaven be his—or he would have shown you judges…. You ought to judge sensibly, not at random…. Flog if you like, but flog someone who deserves it, flog with conscience.”