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CHAPTER IX. THE POLITICAL PRISONERS.
Accompanied by the orderly, Nekhludoff went out into the courtyard, which was dimly lit up by the red light of the lamps.
"Where to?" asked the convoy sergeant, addressing the orderly.
"Into the separate cell, No. 5."
"You can't pass here; the boss has gone to the village and taken the keys."
"Well, then, pass this way."
The soldier led Nekhludoff along a board to another entrance. While still in the yard Nekhludoff could hear the din of voices and general commotion going on inside as in a beehive when the bees are preparing to swarm; but when he came nearer and the door opened the din grew louder, and changed into distinct sounds of shouting, abuse and laughter. He heard the clatter of chairs and smelt the well-known foul air. This din of voices and the clatter of the chairs, together with the close smell, always flowed into one tormenting sensation, and produced in Nekhludoff a feeling of moral nausea which grew into physical sickness, the two feelings mingling with and heightening each other.
The first thing Nekhludoff saw, on entering, was a large, stinking tub. A corridor into which several doors opened led from the entrance. The first was the family room, then the bachelors' room, and at the very end two small rooms were set apart for the political prisoners.
The buildings, which were arranged to hold one hundred and fifty prisoners, now that there were four hundred and fifty inside, were so crowded that the prisoners could not all get into the rooms, but filled the passage, too. Some were sitting or lying on the floor, some were going out with empty teapots, or bringing them back filled with boiling water. Among the latter was Taras. He overtook Nekhludoff and greeted him affectionately. The kind face of Taras was disfigured by dark bruises on his nose and under his eye.
"What has happened to you?" asked Nekhludoff.
"Yes, something did happen," Taras said, with a smile.
"All because of the woman," added a prisoner, who followed Taras; "he's had a row with Blind Fedka."
"And how's Theodosia?"
"She's all right. Here I am bringing her the water for her tea," Taras answered, and went into the family room.
Nekhludoff looked in at the door. The room was crowded with women and men, some of whom were on and some under the bedsteads; it was full of steam from the wet clothes that were drying, and the chatter of women's voices was unceasing. The next door led into the bachelors' room. This room was still more crowded; even the doorway and the passage in front of it were blocked by a noisy crowd of men, in wet garments, busy doing or deciding something or other.
The convoy sergeant explained that it was the prisoner appointed to buy provisions, paying off out of the food money what was owing to a sharper who had won from or lent money to the prisoners, and receiving back little tickets made of playing cards. When they saw the convoy soldier and a gentleman, those who were nearest became silent, and followed them with looks of ill-will. Among them Nekhludoff noticed the criminal Fedoroff, whom he knew, and who always kept a miserable lad with a swelled appearance and raised eyebrows beside him, and also a disgusting, noseless, pock-marked tramp, who was notorious among the prisoners because he killed his comrade in the marshes while trying to escape, and had, as it was rumoured, fed on his flesh. The tramp stood in the passage with his wet cloak thrown over one shoulder, looking mockingly and boldly at Nekhludoff, and did not move out of the way. Nekhludoff passed him by.
Though this kind of scene had now become quite familiar to him, though he had during the last three months seen these four hundred criminal prisoners over and over again in many different circumstances; in the heat, enveloped in clouds of dust which they raised as they dragged their chained feet along the road, and at the resting places by the way, where the most horrible scenes of barefaced debauchery had occurred, yet every time he came among them, and felt their attention fixed upon him as it was now, shame and consciousness of his sin against them tormented him. To this sense of shame and guilt was added an unconquerable feeling of loathing and horror. He knew that, placed in a position such as theirs, they could not he other than they were, and yet he was unable to stifle his disgust.
"It's well for them do-nothings," Nekhludoff heard some one say in a hoarse voice as he approached the room of the political prisoners. Then followed a word of obscene abuse, and spiteful, mocking laughter.
Turn to the next chapter: CHAPTER X. MAKAR DEVKIN.