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CHAPTER VII. NEKHLUDOFF SEEKS AN INTERVIEW WITH MASLOVA.
On the day when the convoy officer had the encounter with the prisoners at the halting station about the child, Nekhludoff, who had spent the night at the village inn, woke up late, and was some time writing letters to post at the next Government town, so that he left the inn later than usual, and did not catch up with the gang on the road as he had done previously, but came to the village where the next halting station was as it was growing dusk.
Having dried himself at the inn, which was kept by an elderly woman who had an extraordinarily fat, white neck, he had his tea in a clean room decorated with a great number of icons and pictures and then hurried away to the halting station to ask the officer for an interview with Katusha. At the last six halting stations he could not get the permission for an interview from any of the officers. Though they had been changed several times, not one of them would allow Nekhludoff inside the halting stations, so that he had not seen Katusha for more than a week. This strictness was occasioned by the fact that an important prison official was expected to pass that way. Now this official had passed without looking in at the gang, after all, and Nekhludoff hoped that the officer who had taken charge of the gang in the morning would allow him an interview with the prisoners, as former officers had done.
The landlady offered Nekhludoff a trap to drive him to the halting station, situated at the farther end of the village, but Nekhludoff preferred to walk. A young labourer, a broad-shouldered young fellow of herculean dimensions, with enormous top-boots freshly blackened with strongly smelling tar, offered himself as a guide.
A dense mist obscured the sky, and it was so dark that when the young fellow was three steps in advance of him Nekhludoff could not see him unless the light of some window happened to fall on the spot, but he could hear the heavy boots wading through the deep, sticky slush. After passing the open place in front of the church and the long street, with its rows of windows shining brightly in the darkness, Nekhludoff followed his guide to the outskirts of the village, where it was pitch dark. But soon here, too, rays of light, streaming through the mist from the lamps in the front of the halting station, became discernible through the darkness. The reddish spots of light grew bigger and bigger; at last the stakes of the palisade, the moving figure of the sentinel, a post painted with white and black stripes and the sentinel's box became visible.
The sentinel called his usual "Who goes there?" as they approached, and seeing they were strangers treated them with such severity that he would not allow them to wait by the palisade; but Nekhludoff's guide was not abashed by this severity.
"Hallo, lad! why so fierce? You go and rouse your boss while we wait here?"
The sentinel gave no answer, but shouted something in at the gate and stood looking at the broad-shouldered young labourer scraping the mud off Nekhludoff's boots with a chip of wood by the light of the lamp. From behind the palisade came the hum of male and female voices. In about three minutes more something rattled, the gate opened, and a sergeant, with his cloak thrown over his shoulders, stepped out of the darkness into the lamplight.
The sergeant was not as strict as the sentinel, but he was extremely inquisitive. He insisted on knowing what Nekhludoff wanted the officer for, and who he was, evidently scenting his booty and anxious not to let it escape. Nekhludoff said he had come on special business, and would show his gratitude, and would the sergeant take a note for him to the officer. The sergeant took the note, nodded, and went away. Some time after the gate rattled again, and women carrying baskets, boxes, jugs and sacks came out, loudly chattering in their peculiar Siberian dialect as they stepped over the threshold of the gate. None of them wore peasant costumes, but were dressed town fashion, wearing jackets and fur-lined cloaks. Their skirts were tucked up high, and their heads wrapped up in shawls. They examined Nekhludoff and his guide curiously by the light of the lamp. One of them showed evident pleasure at the sight of the broad-shouldered fellow, and affectionately administered to him a dose of Siberian abuse.
"You demon, what are you doing here? The devil take you," she said, addressing him.
"I've been showing this traveller here the way," answered the young fellow. "And what have you been bringing here?"
"Dairy produce, and I am to bring more in the morning."
The guide said something in answer that made not only the women but even the sentinel laugh, and, turning to Nekhludoff, he said:
"You'll find your way alone? Won't get lost, will you?
"I shall find it all right."
"When you have passed the church it's the second from the two-storied house. Oh, and here, take my staff," he said, handing the stick he was carrying, and which was longer than himself, to Nekhludoff; and splashing through the mud with his enormous boots, he disappeared in the darkness, together with the women.
His voice mingling with the voices of the women was still audible through the fog, when the gate again rattled, and the sergeant appeared and asked Nekhludoff to follow him to the officer.
Turn to the next chapter: CHAPTER VIII. NEKHLUDOFF AND THE OFFICER.